Ouroboros

Wandering through neural mazes,
I am always lost when I find you,
Your pose is casual, blocking the path,
Like you were waiting for me,
Knowing I’d be there even when I didn’t,
Reminding me of memories I never made.

In the waning days of summer,
There is a scar that I am thankful for,
And yet find it so hard to forgive,
It pulses along with my pulse, counting time,
I ache as the trees do, as the leaves fall,
Still I smile at the splendor of colors.

The things that you are so frightened of,
Are the things I love the most,
I held my face to you like a mirror,
A mere, still in a deep forest,
And you ran like a hunted hart,
Avoiding refreshing pools as your thirst swelled.

I am now bound to chase with no quarry,
As I watch you run with no pursuer,
Participants in a game that must be played,
Do I choose to play, or is fate unescapable,
I’ve clawed and surrendered, and of the two,
One felt right, while the other felt… good.

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Braving the Storm

For centuries your hurricane raged,
I’ve studied,
I’ve seen,
I’ve felt,
So much damage wrought,
I’ve watched your lightning split them asunder,
Your winds bent us to the ground,
Some just snapped,
Or were torn up by the roots,
And your waters swept them out to sea,
Their suffering erased from history,
A monster disguised as nature,
Fooling even the most benevolent,
Who were wise enough to be part of the storm,
Instead of under it.

We who did not break,
We who had a moment to breathe,
We gathered up our energy,
And we began to turn,
A counter-swirl to their spin,
Our storm grew,
We needed to show them,
That we could be as mean and nasty,
Since they refused to subside,
So we matched their maelstrom,
Roaring in a different hemisphere,
They called our storm the enemy,
A crime against nature,
But the more their vortex spat at us,
The more weary they became

And still our hurricane answers the call,
The only way we know how,
Chasing each other around the globe,
But vigilante justice still looks like devastation,
Too angry to be beautiful,
Too easy to draw in survivors,
Fueling the anger,
How can we be peaceful?
But before judgment is passed,
Remember who they destroyed,
For we only scoured the earth,
From the rubble and the ruin,
Of foundations callously laid,
Now you can rebuild civilization,
And humanity can be strong and beautiful

Lost in Thought

I thought of you and it was like a day dream,
One that you choose to get lost in,
There you were in the distance,
It’s a long bench,
But I can tell you’re getting closer,
There are sparks, oh yes,
But they’re far away,
So they don’t look like individual sparks,
Kind of a blur,
But it’s nice because there’s still a light,
Just about to burst into bright,
I’ll be honest, I can’t tell, it’s far away,
And just like that I pop out into the street,
Just another person out walking,
Ambling over to my favorite coffee shop
Tapping my fingers to an unknown tune,
And sometimes you’d appear,
In a glance, out of the corner of my eye.
Like a memory in a different lifetime.

The Wrong Standards – Arguments against the relevancy of biological differences between men and women as having meaning in society

In my last post I talked about a hoax perpetuated by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, which I argued was not only a bad hoax that didn’t prove what it set out to prove, but seems to be indicative of misogyny in higher academic circles as well.  I’d like to use this as a launching point into two future posts.  This one I am going to address James Lindsay’s claim that gender studies ignores biological differences completely and whether or not this is even important, and then I thought it would be interesting to look in more detail at the gender imbalance that does exist at the higher echelons of intelligence,  and academics.

So let’s begin our investigation into biological differences between men and women with the assumption that such differences exist.  There are clearly some genetic differences and if it’s a collection of genes that go into our various behavioral qualities it’s plausible that there are differences.  But let’s go a step further and say some of the stereotypical ones are true.  An employee at Google reminded us of several of them.  So let’s say men or more aggressive/assertive, more competitive, they are about things, and have a high drive for status, and let’s say, and I hate to even pretend this is the case, that men handle stress better and are less neurotic.  Anybody who’s seen the typical working mother knows that it’s probably more likely that men just don’t have as much stress, but for now let’s assume this is the case.  So conversely this assumes that women are more agreeable, cooperative, don’t have a high drive for status and prefer to have a more balanced lifestyle, are more about people over things (this sort of translates also to the stereotype of women being better nurturers than men), and don’t handle stress as well.

The first thing that matters of course is how different are these things.  In a previous post I talked about some basics about statistics and that any trait is distributed about some mean value.  If the difference between men and women in some trait like aggression is small, there is a lot of overlap.  Meaning there are many women who are as aggressive as men and increased probability that some women will be more aggressive than some men. The main difference is that you will only find men in the hyper-aggressive end of the distribution, and only find women at the far opposite end of the aggression distribution (super timid?).  Whatever metric you might use to measure aggression the closer the averages between men and women the less presumptive you could be about any particular gender having that trait.  It’s arguable though that even if there is more separation if you were interviewing applicants for a job this would not be something you could simply assume and use as a basis for making your decision.  That is still discrimination.  Even if the odds are in your favor there is still a chance you could be unfairly punishing somebody solely based on their gender instead of their individual qualities.

But let’s say the differences were significant enough to have some meaning.  Are any of the traits that women are supposed to have bad for any reason?  Our friend at Google actually doesn’t consider them bad, but simply wants to say that maybe there is just some natural reason for why there aren’t more women in tech and hey who are we to fight nature?

Imagine a society that was built valuing the traits that are so “obviously” female.  What would that world look like?  Could we say it was worse?  Let’s say you were a man going in for a job interview at a corporation.  In this world where the feminine traits were valued, where they are the ones that society was built around you might hear things like this at your interview:

EMPLOYER:  Now you list here on your application that one of your strengths is competitiveness.  How do you think you would fit into the cooperative philosophy we have here at our company?

EMPLOYER:  I’m a bit worried that your aggressiveness might be a problem in a leadership role.  We’re looking for someone who is more thoughtful before making decisions and listens more carefully to ideas that come from their team over making decisions unilaterally.

EMPLOYER:  As a man we know you are more about things, but things are used by people, and so really what we are looking for is a more people focused person.

EMPLOYER:  We think it’s great that as a man you can handle stress really well, but our company has gone to great lengths to creating a stress free environment so that’s not a quality we are looking for.

EMPLOYER:  As you know children are the future and the key to a child’s development is having a parent home in those early times especially.  Given that men aren’t interested in a more balanced lifestyle you’ll simply be expected to take on more responsibilities as your female colleagues go on leave without compensation for those extra duties.  And given that we are playing an important role in our children’s welfare, those extra duties you take aren’t considered as additional experience when being considered for promotion.

A female friend of mine were talking and she just said to me, “I am not exactly sure what life should look like, but if I were to build it all back up from scratch, it wouldn’t look like this.”  I think another thing we have to consider when we are analyzing studies that purport differences between males and females is how much of our society is structured with maleness as the standard.  If women and men have different traits as a result of their biology then much of what we see in society will naturally show women as being disadvantaged as compared to men in a society that is built on traits they on average excel at.  There is nothing inherently better about favoring competitiveness over cooperativeness, there is nothing inherently better about favoring things over people.   Why should assertiveness be more rewarded over being agreeable?  These are all examples of a male standard that women are being forced to meet for no reason other than this is a man’s world.  Even the way we do education could be argued as being structured with male education in mind, given for a long time educating women wasn’t a priority as they weren’t expected to utilize that knowledge in a career.  So if men and women learn differently, maybe we are forcing them to conform to a different style of learning.  Now, I’m not saying that biologic differences don’t exist, but it seriously casts some doubt on any study that is trying to disentangle biological differences between men and women in a world that still uses maleness as the gold standard that everyone must meet.

Finally the onus is on those who purport biological differences in traits between male and female to demonstrate that they are significant and useful in any way.  There a lot of reasons to doubt that this is the case.  In a series of meta-studies and research findings by psychologists by Janet Shibley Hyde, Elizabeth Spelke, and Diane Helpern indicate little to no difference between cognitive abilities in language and mathematics among men and women.  Their results are summarized here.  From this same summary, Spencer (1999) found:

“… that merely telling women that a math test had previously shown gender differences hurt their performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. Women who expected gender differences did significantly worse than men. Those who were told there was no gender disparity performed equal to men.”

In another study by Gneezy et. al (2009) differences in competitiveness between women and men is challenged.  Participants from villages that are matriachal (Khasi) and patriarchal (Maasi) in India were asked to take part in a game of throwing tennis balls into a basket:

“They were given a choice of a simple payment for the task—about 40 US cents—or they could earn three times as much if they beat they the other player. Among the Maasai, half the men chose to compete, while only a quarter of the women chose to. Among the Khasi, not only were the results reversed, but Khasi women were even more competitive than the Maasai men: 54% of the women opted to compete, as did 39% of the Khasi men.”

The clear role that socialized gender roles plays in differences between men and women is highlighted in a paper by Guiso et. al (2008) where employers were asked to make quick decisions about who to hire for a job based on performance on a 4 minute math sprint exam:

“Men and women employers alike revealed their prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical ability. When the only information that the employers had was a photograph of the candidate, men were twice as likely to be hired for the simple math job, no matter whether it was a man or woman doing the hiring, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hiring bias did not disappear when candidates self-reported their ability on the task, in part because women tended to underestimate their ability while men tended to boast. And even when the employers received accurate information about the actual performance of the candidates, the bias did not fully disappear. The more prejudiced a person was, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, the less likely they were to correct their bias.”

Confirming the findings from this study as well as outlining the difficulty with pointing to biological differences as any sort of major cause for the  presence of women with high levels of cognitive abilities and leadership roles, I strongly recommending reading this article by Halpern et al (2012) published in Scientific American.

The article will make a nice launching point into my next post where I talk about the intersection of feminism and atheism or lack thereof.  What seems clear is that there continue to be strong biases against women in both academia and in the work place.  While such bias still exists in our society it seems more apt for the Boghossians, Lindsays, and Shermers of the world to spend more of their time worrying about that imbalance instead of mocking a field which may not be as bereft of scholarship as they claim, and which may have some valid arguments to make.  And if they are the scientists they claim to be and going to rail against a field which denies biological differences between men and women, they should also make sure that all the findings out there fit that assertion.  It seems far from clear that those differences are significant enough to be meaningful in any gender make up of any corporation, tech company, or university.

It may be that at some point biological differences do give us important information that can help men and women achieve better states of well-being in reaching their full potential, but it seems clear we are far from that stage in our society.  Only once we truly see that there is no career or field that women are less qualified for, and that we live in a world that puts emphasis on good human values, not male values, should biological differences really be part of the discussion.

Bad Hoaxes – The Conceptual Misogynist

Several months ago, an “exposé” came out in Skeptic Magazine about a hoax paper that was accepted in a gender studies journal.  The paper was titled The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct, written by James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian.  It’s publication was supposed to expose the gender studies for the postmodern scam it is, that relies on political and emotional truths over scientific ones.   Michael Shermer who runs Skeptic Magazine published this, and people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and many of our other favorite thinkers delighted in this hoax except there was one problem.  It wasn’t a very good hoax.  It was rejected by a mid-tier gender studies journal called Norma, and only accepted in a pay-to-publish journal.  Harris has since rejected it as a good hoax after more information came out as to how it was originally presented and published.  Sadly Shermer has tried to use some hand-waving to say that well it’s still satire and for him it doesn’t matter where it was published, it’s a fair satirical critique for what passes as scholarship.  The style of the hoax is patterned after a hoax in biology committed by Sokal and he seems to still think it was a decent hoax, but even he has admitted that I didn’t actually really prove that gender studies was bereft of scholarship.  You can find Shermer’s apologetics and Sokal’s analysis of the hoax here.  However, the authors of this hoax claim in their original article in Skeptic Magazine that they have successfully done this.  They claim:

There are at least two deeply troublesome diseases damaging the credibility of the peer-review system in fields such as gender studies:

  1. the echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense coming out of the postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular and
  2. the complex problem of pay-to-publish journals with lax standards that cash in on the ultra-competitive publish-or-perish academic environment. At least one of these sicknesses led to “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” being published as a legitimate piece of academic scholarship, and we can expect proponents of each to lay primary blame upon the other.

They also claim that since Norma recommended the pay-to-publish journal that they must have taken it somewhat seriously. However, it’s also possible that Norma played a hoax on them.  Maybe they recognize it as low grade garbage and just said, well if you want it published take it over to this other journal. Although I will concede that it still might be a problem if an academic journal is still recommending garbage for publication even in low tier journals.  You can read Lindsay and Boghossian’s response to criticisms here.

This issue for me had been put in the past, until I listened recently to a podcast (which I now adore) called Very Bad Wizards, where they interview James Lindsay, one of the co-authors.  I recommend listening to the interview (especially if you like watch mathematicians dance) which starts half way through the podcast, but Lindsay comes off as completely unwilling to concede that the paper wasn’t very successful, and in fact comes off someone who was more interested in mockery than making an honest statement.  He admitted to have no personal expertise in gender studies and thus couldn’t engage in honest criticism.  Despite not having any knowledge of the field still felt that his satire was good satire.  He also claims since the journal it did end up in had at least one reviewer with the requisite expertise to judge the paper that point #1 was in fact proven.  The hosts of the show made several excellent points:

  1. The fact that even a mid-tier journal didn’t publish the paper lends some weight to the fact that Gender Studies does have standards of scholarship.  And even if gender studies was publishing morally fashionable nonsense, this hoax did not prove that.
  2. Low tier pay-to-publish journals exist in numerous fields, so this point could have been proven in numerous areas of study.
  3. The velocity in which many male scholars jumped on the bandwagon of this hoax without giving it the serious critical thought it should have had before getting behind it, makes the reaction to the hoax guilty of the same charge of “morally fashionable”. How are we to take a criticism of gender studies seriously when it I also acts in the same way as they claim the field of gender studies acts?

Given that every field probably has some junk science and some crap journals I asked myself the question, why did these two men pick gender studies?  Why was the hilarity all coming from men.  I’ll admit, I myself fell into this without the requisite critical thinking that I should have had.  I hold Skeptic Magazine in higher regards (that’s dropped a couple notches now) and I’d like to believe that it’s just because I enjoy a good hoax, and that I do think it’s important to point out junk science, but the more I reflected, I thought it’s quite interesting how quick men were to jump on this.  There seems to be something else going on, even if somewhat unconscious.  I am quite aware of the scholarly work that is done in feminism, but on reflection, even if this hoax had proved what it attempted to prove, I was wrong to post the hoax originally on Facebook, because I don’t believe it represents anything normative about gender or feminist research, and while there may be some bad research out there, given the tilt against women in our society both nationally and internationally if there are criticisms to be had it should be done honestly and in good faith and not in the manner that this was done.  At seems at the very least there is still an undercurrent of misogyny in this hoax and it’s unnecessary.

Lindsay also claims that the field of gender studies largely ignores robust scientific evidence of differences between genders.  As a follow up to this post I’d like to challenge this evidence in a post later to come.  There I will make the case that even if we did find such evidence I’d like to address how minimal and possibly pointless such gender differences are, and that compared to socialized gender constructs, biological differences between the sexes are largely irrelevant.

For now, let’s have less hoaxes that genders that are disadvantaged by society, where many serious problems still exist.  I am quite certain that there is a lot of bad scholarship going on out there in academia, and I’d like to believe that this is the main reason I initially delighted in the hoax.  On reflection it was in poor taste and upon learning more about it, it didn’t prove what it set out to prove.  Let’s be united against bad scholarship wherever it might be and instead of being clueless about the field as James Lindsay claimed he was, let’s have educated criticism.

Yoga – The Art of Self-Torture

Yoga.  It sounds like a friendly word.  Sounds a little like yogurt.  Smooth and creamy.  Maybe a little like a low mobility shriveled old alien spouting words of wisdom in Star Wars.  Or Maybe it reminds you a little of Yogi Bear:  that lovable cartoon animal that really just wanted picnic baskets.  He didn’t want to ravage people, he was just hungry for a sandwich.  So what harm could come from doing yoga?  Plenty.  It’s a horrible practice that should have been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.  The non-threatening name only exacerbates the horror and trauma it causes.  I shall now attempt to explain how this system of abuse works.

It begins by a suggestion from your wife that yoga will be beneficial to you and that it’s something you can do together.  While I don’t blame my wife for the suffering endured, she is responsible for tending to injuries afterwards.  Anyway, what husband wouldn’t agree with that suggestion – so off to yoga I go.  Keep in mind this suggestion has been made for a couple years before I  finally relented. This is a great way to spend a Saturday morning if you aren’t a fan of sleeping or taking it easy on the weekend.  I am not sure what every yoga studio looks like but the ones I have seen are similar to this.  A big open space and as you walk in you feel comforted by its openness.  It’s similar to one of those big empty warehouses the mob might ask you a few questions in with just a chair sitting at the center.  Except there are no chairs.  Off to the side the room is stocked with many implements of your future torture.  Unlike in typical torture situations where the torturer has to at least expend some effort to get the equipment, you have to get it yourself.  There is the razor thin mat, which gives you little protection from the floor, but prevents your feet and hands from sliding on the floor into a comfortable position which might save you from the pain you will have to experience. There are straps which you use to bind yourself with, there are blocks and pillows that you use to prop yourself up with (more will be explained later about how these will be used to weaken you psychologically).

The class is largely full of women.  If you are a single man interested in women, you might think this is the place for you, but you’d be mistaken.  The only way you can impress a woman here is through your ability to take pain.  Some women might be impressed by that, but probably only the kind that want a man they can inflict pain on.  Others might feel sorry for you and take pity.  I submit that nothing here is the basis for building a meaningful relationship.  My suggestion is that you hone other skills and impress women elsewhere.  And as I’ll soon explain, it’s unclear how many people here aren’t part of the grift that is yoga.

Your instructor is the true deceiver here and you will look at her and really think everything will be alright.  She is friendly and welcoming.  She doesn’t look overly imposing although a careful glance will see strong muscles safely tucked into her yoga pants.  Of course, she need not be too formidable in appearance as the method of torture comes from what she tells you to do to yourself, not what she does to you directly.  This is the brilliance of it all.

As the session begins the trap is sprung.  Why?  Because this is the beginning of the psychological manipulation to follow.  You start by sitting and breathing.  Her voice is calming as she tries to relax you so you become more pliable later.  Often there is some music in the background played at the exact right volume to make you more compliant and ensure complete submission to her orders.  So there I am sitting and breathing.  Pretty easy stuff.  I’m getting relaxed.  I look around the room…I feel a sense of unity as we are all sitting and breathing and I am on par with the rest of the class at this activity so I’m feeling good about myself.  But this peaceful feeling doesn’t last.  It’s not long before you have to start doing poses.  This by the way is also the beginning of many Hindi words that I’m pretty sure mean rather insidious things, but sound spiritual.

Related image
Yoga participants in worship of the instructor

I got to do a cow.  That was easy.  I pretended like I had a really heavy udder.  Then there was the cat.  That was also not bad, except cats are ready to pounce and flee at a moment’s notice.  This was only making me more stationary.  Then there was the cobra.  All I know is that if a mongoose found me it would be over quick.  Then I am doing something called “a child”, which is not like my child at all who is energetic and obstinate.  In this position you are more like a worshipper praising the teacher for the pleasure of being tortured.  Then I’m told to take the strap and put it around my foot to hold my leg straight up in the air.  I quickly notice how my leg doesn’t go straight up in the air.  It is roughly at a 20 degree angle above the floor in order to remain straight.  Everybody else in the room is like a fucking submarine and I begin to feel shame.  I begin to wonder is yoga really just part of the feminist agenda so we know what it feels like to constantly feel shame over our own bodies in a patriarchal system?  As a feminist I quickly agree that yoga is for the betterment of society and continue.  My hamstring already feels angry as the teacher calmly has me moving my leg to the left and right.  Her language becomes a maze of confusion.  “Turn to the right, but open your shoulders.  Pin your hips to the floor as if you are breathing through your thigh.”  I quickly notice that my thigh is completely without the requisite respiratory system and begin to worry.  That worry is quickly forgotten as I am told to lose the strap and do a cobra again.  Now it’s downward facing dog.  You will, in this moment, realize that no dog would ever pose like this.  My arms quiver under the weight of my body.  “No”, she says, “the weight is supposed to mostly on your legs.”  I quickly try to work out how this is humanly possible because hard as I try I can only make my hamstrings scream.  I collapse on to my knees and look around as everyone looks like statues and my complete incompetence becomes glaring.  I’m sweating as I glance up at the clock.  Only 15 minutes have passed.  Also why does my sweat smell worse in this environment?

Typical yoga “plant” used to grift people into thinking that yoga can be accomplished by anybody, but only enhances your shame.

As I alluded to earlier the extreme shame you experience is what makes you go along with the instructor.  Every move you try to follow her on reminds you that you aren’t worthy.  All the while she will say things like, “Lift your arm up straight so that it brushes your ear.  Now drop your shoulder.”  What?  How do I drop my shoulder while lifting up my arm? And on and on it goes, “Open your shoulders, stretch your spine, drop your tailbone, turn your pinkies inward to work your triceps, reach out with your ring finger to feel it in your armpit, bend down to left while lowering your right hip.”  Basically the rule of thumb is that whatever direction they want you to move, you are supposed to, somehow, at the same time also move in the other direction.  And I begin to realize that yoga is simply the art of tearing your own body apart as slowly and painfully as possible.

I am on the ground, left leg over right and told “turn to the left, but not to move my neck, and to keep my buttocks on the ground, and to reach behind me, turn my hand, open my shoulders, but now look back in the other direction, without using my neck, only my shoulders, also open up the sides of your body, push your ribs against your tailbone.”   Somehow no time has passed since my last excruciating look at the clock.  As I look around, illegally, using my neck, I am reminded once again that I am surround by flexible supple women who look like dancers and begin to realize that they are all part of the plan to torture you.  The teacher beforehand selected them to make you look as pathetic as possible.  And as you look over at the teacher, you can’t even feel aggression, which would be the normal way to get out of this situation, but shame weakens you.   You are ready to tell her where the bomb is located, what the encryption code is, turn over your family to the authorities, but your tormentor doesn’t want any information and only wants you to experience pain.  A 5’1″ sadist who somehow manages to say “namaste” with a smile on her face from the well of darkness that must be her soul.  You want to run out of the room, but this would only add to the humiliation.  Peppered throughout her tormenting instruction is “Don’t do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.”  Even though, minus the sitting and breathing, everything she’s asked you to do since makes you uncomfortable.  If my comfort was her concern she would ask me to leave.

The final mockery comes with the warrior poses.  As a man my instinct is to think that this is finally something I can sink my teeth in, but again she exposes the patriarchy for what it is.  I look around and I see women who could very well be Amazonian soldiers ready to strike me with a deadly blow.  I on the other hand feel like a Chihuahua who has less that confidently stood in front of Doberman Pincher, only to realize that not only do I have a sprained ankle, but I’ve also got spinach between my teeth when I try to growl.  I listen to Yanni playing now.  I hate Yanni.  That bastard plays a note for 30 seconds while sipping a coffee, making millions and leads a pleasurable life, while his new age feeble “compositions” are now a soundtrack for my pain.

The best part of it all is that this was called “gentle yoga”.  Imagine lying on the ground while a crane slowly in small increments lowers a 1 ton weight on to you.  At first you are like it’s just touching me, now it’s a bit of a massage, and then “Oh my bones are being crushed and I will soon be flat as a pancake”.  This is really the only way I can me sense of the use of the word “gentle”.  Gentle and continuous pressure will still ruin your day.

Man being tortured by gentle turns on the rack. AKA early yogic practices.

After a length of time which can only be measured on the geologic time scale, the barefoot punisher allows you to relax and asks for you to reflect on what you did today.  Afraid to relive the trauma I decide to think of the bagels I have at home and which flavor cream cheese I want.  I do some more very competent breathing. She wishes us all happiness, and that we cause no harm, remorseless for the harm she caused me.  I get up and put my torture implements away obediently, wipe down my mat, smelling the residue of my fear.  As I leave, hips wobbling, the teacher smiles at me and I say “See you next week!”

A Re-framing of Faith

After my previous post about faith, which led to a fruitful discussion, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of faith to humans and how it might be framed in a more useful way.  A couple summers ago I presented a series of posts about 8 virtues or qualities that make a good human, and faith was the last one I discussed.  I think that if I were to do that series again today I might change the word faith to “prediction”.

In the discussion we had on my most recent post about faith, we talked about the difference between religious faith, and the sort of everyday way we might use the word faith.  One of the things that I talked about as a difference between how a scientist might use faith, and what a religious person might call faith are two different things.  The most important difference being that a scientist would be willing to change what he has faith in, based on evidence.  I have always argue that while faith is important we should be willing to change what we have faith as we learn.  The other thing that I argued was that faith is built on evidence and there is a very big difference in having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, and faith that there is a supernatural divine being.  The difference there being the weight of evidence, and the quality of evidence used in building those two types of“faith”.

But I started to think about it at a deeper level and it seems to me that at the heart of faith is really something else when I started to ask, “Why do we have faith at all?”  Faith is a representation of our desire to predict an uncertain future.  When I had my son, I wrote a post called Love and the Future, about how when we love we start painting pictures of the future in our mind.  It happens in romantic relationships too.  According to a friend of mine who is a counselor, one of the hardest parts of counseling someone after a difficult breakup is for them to let go of those “future plans”.  I have also written a post before about “expectations”.  In the post, I talked about the benefits of expectations in that we rise to meet them.  By having a future goal in mind, we make better progress than none at all.  Of course, there are many who would say you shouldn’t have expectations, because they will only lead to disappointment, but I am not sure it’s possible to live a life without any expectations.  It’s natural that we’d have some, but I think that it’s true we might have limits into how many failed expectations we can shoulder.  Either way it seems to me that expectations are also a type of “faith”.  A desire to place some certainty in the future based on our desires and wants.  It is something we expect to come true, even if it doesn’t.

For the past few months I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, and it has been an enjoyable experience.  I’ve been using an app called Headspace.  It avoids a lot of the new age type stuff and really focuses on the philosophy of meditation and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in getting into it.  The goal is to be more focused on the present, to be mindful of what we are doing in the moment.  A thought struck me yesterday when I was practicing it, as that one of the things they tell you in the guided meditation is that you want to think about “what are your goals with the meditation” and after it’s over they suggest you think about what is going to the very next thing you do.  So even in something that is supposed to be about the present, we cannot help but look forward at least a little bit in our thinking.

I have come to the conclusion that it is natural in humans to be forward thinkers.  I have had the thought before that one of the things that makes humans more intelligent is our ability to project further into the future than other species.  Now one could argue that we are also still pretty awful at it, but the fact that we try is actually impressive.  We look for patterns in the universe and we try to project those patterns into the future so that we can be less uncertain and fearful about it.  While Farmer’s almanacs would like us to believe that squirrels can predict months in advance about the severity of the winter, it is clear in an evolutionary sense life on average are poor forward thinkers.  If they were good at it, I’m not sure extinctions would happen as often as they do.  For instance, an animal can only assume a winter will lie between certain climatic norms.  Some portion of the population will develop mutations better equipped for let’s say surviving a larger range of conditions, but when change becomes to extreme large proportions of a population if not all, cannot adapt and die out.  Humans are better at it, unfortunately we are also deeply conceited and that leads to problems.  So given this human propensity to want to predict, the best thing we can do is to build value systems that allow us to be successful more often.

When we say we have faith in our partner, our ourselves, we are making a statement that there is an expectation that based on existing evidence that we will continue to handle some future situation in the same way we have before.  Making a statement like, “I have faith I will do well on my exams”.  Presumably you have taken enough exams to presume a similar outcome.  More than that, to make sure it isn’t blind faith, you have examined the patterns to your success through various study methods, getting a certain amount sleep, etc to make sure your faith is not misplaced.  Your faith is a type of prediction.  A value system that aids in this faith is your ability to be introspective and also perhaps learn from others as to how they study and learn what are good and bad practices.

So where does religious faith fit into all of this?  Hopefully by now it is pretty clear, but let’s look a little closer.  I have read several atheist and agnostic scholars speak about religion as a type of model.  This is how religion has always made the most sense to me. What is the purpose of models?  In science models are things that model scientific processes that give us more predictive capabilities.  The better we understand a process, on average, the more predictive we will be.  This is why a scientist’s ‘faith’ might be quite different than a religious person’s faith because the success of a scientific theory is its predictive capability.  The poorer it is at prediction the less certain we are about our understanding.  In my field of meteorology one of the main reasons we try to model atmospheric processes is to become better at prediction.  It is helpful to be more aware of what weather and climatic patterns are coming in the future.

Religious faith, at its root, is a kind model.  One constructed a long time ago, built largely on false patternicity errors, but given how little we understood about the universe its weak predictive capabilities (in line with empirical evidence) is hardly surprising.  Nevertheless it is an attempt to know the future.  It’s full of prophet predictions, it speaks of what happens to you when you die, how the world will end, what consequences your actions might have.  People pray or plead for diving intervention for their future endeavors.  ‘Please get me this job, please make it rain so our crops come in, please don’t let my mother die of cancer.’  These are all  attempts to give us certainty in an ever changing universe in which are predictive capabilities, especially at an individual level, are extremely limited.  The statement “God has a plan for you” is a prime example of how religion has the course of your life worked out already.  There is no need to worry about it.  Just have faith.  People find it soothing to pray, people find it peaceful to know the purpose of the universe, to know what will happen to them when they die.  In fact, on the whole, religion gives far more certainty than science, which is why I expect it is much more popular.  Science rarely claims 100% predictive capability, but religion does, and to this end religion can be easily used to exploit people.  It is a panacea to all the uncertainty in the world.  Religion pushes people to have more and more faith in times of doubt and confusion.  What they are really saying is “Be more and more certain that (religious claim x) is the truth.”  And if you’re successful, not surprisingly, you feel better.  With mental effort we can convince ourselves to be more certain of things whose outcome is uncertain.  Human history is rife with such examples.  There is no doubt in my mind that we have better models for how humans can live their lives now.  Nevertheless, we have maintained these old models, trying to ignore the worst bits of them, and developed an entire field of apologetics whose main purpose is to try to convince people that these old models still not only have value, but that they are actually superior to other models out there.

Now just because prediction is something humans do, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a virtue.  I guess I see it as a raw instinct that needs to be tamed, which is how I have approached all beneficial human qualities.  I think it’s clear that while much happiness can be found in getting lost in the moment, we need some sort of value system that gives us a direction.  We might get there and find we have to go somewhere else, but it seems beneficial to always have some sort of idea of where we might go next.  In my life it seems that the people I have admired most are the ones who can take pleasure in the moment, but also keep their eyes ahead of them as well.  It’s dangerous to get lost in times that have not occurred, just as it is unhealthy to dwell in the past.   So if I were to choose this 8th value that makes a good human, perhaps the word “prediction” doesn’t quite do it justice, but until I come up with a better word it will have to do.  There is, however, no question in my mind that a defining quality for our species is our ability think about the future.   It encapsulates our dreams for a better future and if there is any escape from the fate of extinction that most life on this planet has faced, it will be through our ability to predict, if we can remember to be humble enough to remember we aren’t perfect.

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