I Have My Reasons

I had this idea in my early 20s that there was an equation that could define what it mean to live a fulfilling life.  I had reasoned this based on what I had observed that seemed common to the well being of all people.  People would generally laugh at me when I’d say something like this just as you may be doing now.  To be sure when I said equation I was describing nothing so trite as x+y=3, or anything like that.  This equation was look and full of many variables.  Some of those variables might be simple, like having oxygen and water.  Other variables could not be settled so easily and they would not have the exact same value for each person.  In fact the same could be true of oxygen and water, but there were certainly variables in that equation which might be more broad and whose details might on the surface look quite different for different people.  An example might be something like art.  Art is important.  For some it’s the doing of art, for others it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of it, for some it’s both.  For some people it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it could be making floral arrangements.  I think it’s true to say that I didn’t even have the equation worked out myself and I still don’t but it seems obvious to me that there is common ground when it comes to these variables that can be used for this equation to come up with a solution for a productive and meaningful life.

I was listening to a podcast recently where writer Andrew Sullivan was arguing with Sam Harris that reason could not form a basis for happiness.  This idea was reinforced in another podcast where Russell Brand was trying to make the point on his podcast that this secular world that is edging out religion is also edging out spirituality and thus making our world bereft of meaning in some way.  I would first say that I am not altogether sure that this is even true in that there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that our world has a lot less suffering (as a percentage of the population) than we had even a 100 years ago.  But let’s say that Russell Brand’s assertion is true in his more deist outlook, and I know many other theists who share similar concerns.  As I look at the person I am now, I am someone who leans strongly in the direction and importance of reason.  More specifically scientific reasoning.  And I reflected on this claim by Sullivan.  Are things like love and spirituality eroded by reason?  If I hold reason, logic, empiricism, and all that stuff as guiding principles in my quest for truth, am I going to miss out on important meaning that could be present in my life?  The anecdote I started with here came to my mind, an idea that came to me from beauty I saw in mathematics, but also the reasoning I had done in observance of the human condition.  So I decided to write a post why I think reason is wonderful, in my humble opinion.

Image result for reason quotes

I will start by saying reasoning can be flawed, but not all reasoning.  Saying reason has no value because reasoning can be flawed is flawed reasoning.

Reason tells us that spirituality is important to humans.  Reason has shown us that you don’t need to believe in the divine to have spiritual experiences.  It’s reasonable to seek spiritual experiences.  When I reflect on why a certain experience was spiritual for me this helps me understand what factors might lead to more of these experiences.

Reason tells us that love is important to humans.  Feelings of intense love can be spiritual, and like spiritual experiences enjoying the emotion and not thinking to much about it the moments is a good idea.  Reason tells us that love is a lot like a drug, and makes act irrationally.  I don’t mind this fact actually.  Being aware of that though can help us think twice making a decision based solely on love, which also isn’t a bad thing.  Just as one might claim that life is more than just reason, life is also more than just love.  And even if love often defies reasons, we know there are reasons why humans love.  When I reflect on the reasons why I love, I understand myself better and this can lead to me having more experiences where I get to have those wonderful feelings of love run through me.

Reason informs me that humans must have meaning or purpose – things that drive us to more, to live another day just for the possibility of fulfilling that purpose or experiencing that meaning.  These things vary wildly among people as there are many ways to find meaning.  Too many perhaps because some seem to not know what direction to go in.  When I use my reasoning skills to evaluate meaning and purpose I feel like I understand how to make life more fulfilling.

Reason tells us that sometimes you have to do things for no reason at all.  Perhaps a better way of putting this is that it’s reasonable to do something that you’ve never done before, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  It means taking a risk.  Fail or succeed you grow, and spending a lot of time reasoning about the possible outcomes can ruin the value you might get from taking the risk.  Without risk we don’t grow.  Reason tells us that when we stagnate we become apathetic and life loses meaning and purpose.  Time seems to fly by as it becomes routine and this precious existence is over before we know it.  So I’ve reasoned that I need to keep challenging myself, and sometimes it’s made life harder, but never dull.

Reason informs me that we all reason and by being clearer about our own reasons we can better communicate them.  Conversation can help expose us to different lines of reasoning, and help evaluate what lines or reasoning are better, worse, or just different.  Reason tells us that there is no right answer to the best flavor of ice cream, but there is a right answer to how to jump the battery in your car.  And this may be the reason why you have to sit and have an ice cream while you wait for AAA to come and tow your car to the mechanic.

Reason informs me that there are better and worse ways of thinking about problems and that there are rules to reasoning.  Reason has shown how prone to cognitive biases and delusion we are.  Reason tells me that it is hard to overcome these problems and it takes being conscious of it, and takes perseverance to continue to learn and to be reflective.   When we aren’t aware of how our reasoning can be flawed that’s when conversation can breakdown.  And once we can no longer have conversations through shared norms of sound reasoning, when conversation fails to resolve our differences, reason tells us that violence becomes a much more likely option in resolving differences.

Reason tells me that even though emotion can often guide my reasoning, I serve my compassion better when I detach emotion from reasoning because life also isn’t all about how I feel about it.  Reason tells me sometimes I have to step outside of myself so I can be more sure that reasoning isn’t flawed by my emotions.

Reason tells me that ignorance might be more blissful, but that there is nothing about life that says it is supposed to be one happy moment after another.  Sometimes reasoning will make us sad, anxious or scared.  But we can use that to drive us to make the world a better place and not let ourselves be paralyzed by it.  If more people used this type of reasoning, reasoning would lead to less experiences of sadness, anxiety and fear.

It’s reasonable to assume that you might not agree with my reasoning, but it was important for me to demonstrate that reason doesn’t have to be the antithesis to meaning and that it can actually enhance it.  It also may be that my reasoning is flawed.  There is a reason why I write a blog to have conversations.  There is also a reason that I keep trying to learn more, because good reasoning sometimes just requires more information.  There is a reason why I love reason, and hopefully you love it a little more after reading this.

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How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

Men Not Being Believed? Blame the Patriarchy, Not Women.

A friend of mine linked me an article that she said pissed her off, and when I responded she asked me to turn the response into a blog post because she said I articulated her thoughts better than she could.  I have elaborated on my response a bit here for more clarity.  The article in question is here.  Reading at least a portion of it will put my response in context, but I suspect many of you have read posts by the men’s rights and so my response might just make sense on those grounds.  For the record, I think the article has some valuable points that are worthy of further discussion.

My response:
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As is often the case with these types of arguments some valid points are mixed in with just some unnecessary vilification which makes me less apt to take it seriously. I would agree that if we are going to tear down men for their inappropriate sexual behavior then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have those same standards apply to women, and in the article he discusses an incident involving Mariah Carey.  I do think there is a case to be made about men not being believed when they are victims of domestic violence or harassment. However when this argument is framed in devaluing the experience of what women have gone through I think this is where this person and others like him begin to lose my sympathy.

I think one can see part of the reason why the person feels the way they do because they sort of give the game away with rejecting the idea of systemic oppression. The model isn’t flawed it’s just more far reaching than he is able to recognize. First, his analogy about terrorism is a poor one, because he’s the reason why we don’t take Muslim deaths at the hands of Christians seriously is because of systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, not because terrorism isn’t systemic oppression. In a way his analogy actually contradicts his argument about systemic oppression of women. More importantly what all such people like this lose sight of is that the systemic oppression of women does oppress men as well. And a lot of feminists get that. For instance, if we value some hyper-masculine version of man the result of this is that it defines both women AND men in a certain way.  In a binary view of gender, whatever a man is, a woman therefore is not.  Any deviations outside of those category definitions results in criticism and a loss of freedom for both genders.  Both genders suffer.  The man holds the power to be sure in some respects and this is his advantage, but his humanity is diminished. Want to be emotional? You can’t. Want to think football is stupid? You can’t. Hate cars? Too bad. Want to become a florist? You’re being a pussy. So men do suffer in at least some ways (maybe not as many ways) from the systemic oppression against women.

I would also suggest that most of the “disbelieving” of men comes not from unsympathetic women (and sure there are likely some) but more likely from other men who maintain this hyper-masculine view of society.  I mean let’s ask why you might not be believed as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic abuse.  The arguments might go something like this:

“I mean you’re a man, you’re supposed to be tough.  Just hit that woman back, show her whose boss.  And if you did get hit, well you’re a man, you’re just supposed to suck it up.” 

“Did you get sexually harassed?  You’re a man you’re supposed to like women touching you, anywhere and at anytime.  It’s sexy when women want you.  You must be gay if you don’t like women coming on to you.  I mean every man wants to be as irresistible to women as you are.”

Such attitudes are the result of systemic oppression of women in which hyper-masculinity is valued and femininity is not valued.  The quote on the cover photo here is about a male victim from another male, but one could easily see how such a dismissive attitude would even be enhanced if the perpetrator was a woman. Complaining about sexual harassment, being the victim of violence inflicted by a woman, these are all considered feminine qualities and are devalued in a patriarchy.  Thus you are treated just like a woman.  Disbelieved at best, and at worst ridiculed for being essentially a traitor to your gender.  The attitude can even be bore by women, because we are all born into a society that normalizes the patriarchal structure.

As I’ve always argued, being feminist has advantages to both men and women.  The sooner we tear down the patriarchy, we improve the condition for all genders and sexual orientation.
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Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

Free Will and Changing Your Mind

There was a very good question posed to Sam Harris on his podcast which was:

“If free will is an illusion, why are intentions morally relevant?”

Sam Harris’ answer was very good, but I wanted to throw in my own answer as well.  This also brought to the fore questions I have been asking for years and has led me on a path to learn about the brain and cognitive science: “How effectively can we change our own minds about things?  And what is the manner in which we can change our mind?”  Now perhaps to some, the question posed to Sam Harris doesn’t seem related, but I think there is a very important connection here.

Whether or not you agree that free will is an illusion or not, isn’t something I want to debate with right now.  I haven’t heard a compelling reason in favor of the idea of free will in some time.  I think what the more interest question is to understand why people are against the idea of free will being an illusion.  Sure you could argue that religion is part of that reason, but even secular people are uncomfortable with the idea.  The question posed to Sam Harris says it all.  If there is no free will, how is anybody responsible for their actions?

The word responsible is the word that doesn’t belong here, and this is what most people seem to miss.  This has important consequences for our justice system.  So then why do intentions matter?  The reason why intentions matter is because of what it says about your brain.  Let’s say I’m driving and I accidentally hit a cyclist, what does this say about me as a person?  I may be careless on the road.  Maybe I need to take some more driver training classes.  Maybe I need glasses.  Maybe if I’ve gotten into numerous accidents it means I probably shouldn’t drive any more.   What if I feel genuine remorse for what I’ve done?  Doesn’t that say something about how my brain works as well?  Do I belong in jail?  I don’t think so.  But if on the other hand I see that cyclist and get a sinister grin on my face and speed up and mow that cyclist down, what does this say about me?  It says that I am a person who takes joy about causing harm to others.  I might not feel remorse…maybe I do…but there would be something troubling about my mind that speaks to what future actions I am likely to take.  What if I know the cyclist and hate the person and that’s why I mow them down?  This also says something troubling about future actions I might make.  Because who might be the next person I hate, and what might I do to them?

I have talked about the idea of “personal responsibility” before and as I write this post it becomes even clearer why that phrase confuses me.  Having a party centered around personal responsibility seems to be an even bigger mistake.  We are a social species and it’s easy to say we are responsible for ourselves, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  It is the environment which shapes the individual and we have laws in large part not to control individual behaviors but to protect society.  It seems to me that it is we as a society, as other people in a person’s life that intervene to impact someone’s behavior.  And when a person does change their behavior it is a response to what society values, or through some personal experience in interacting with society or their environment that changes one’s mind.  If I am going around running people down with my car, whether accidentally, or on purpose, it is society that in some way says hey you can’t be doing that and finds an appropriate way to make me less of a danger.  If I take it upon myself to make changes, it is because of some emotional reaction to what I’ve done that is the impetus for change.  Rather than a decision to change, my body, my mind doesn’t want to feel a certain way and thus pushes me in a direction to not feel that way again.  My consciousness of that motivation is what gives me the illusion of free will.

Change in an individual seems to be a result not of an individual’s decisions, but rather the environmental context in which we live.  If society hasn’t shaped us to be more receptive to changing our mind, it is actively intervening to try and convince us to reform our views.  Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  It seems that there is no real reason for me to want to change my mind about anything when I think about it.  I mean if what I believe has kept me alive so far, to be of an age to reproduce and raise children to a sufficient age so they can reproduce then what I believe must be pretty reasonable.  Now for a social species it could be that what I believe is very counter to surviving well with the people around me.  But as long as I generally believe what the “group” believes I’ll probably be alright.  Whether those beliefs are true or not makes no difference.  It really doesn’t even make a difference if they are harmful, providing that harm doesn’t lead to any consequences that would significantly reduce my chances to reproduce.

As we realize the global society that we live in, and that more and more of us are infringing on each other cultural and intellectual space, as we become more acutely aware of the harm of certain beliefs and values, not just in our community but over the entirety of the planet, I feel it’s important we start asking how can we all get along?  What values should this global community have?  What differences can we afford to maintain and still get diversity?  Does diversity’s value diminish over time if we hope for unity among humankind?  And given how difficult it seems to be to change one’s mind, what are some beliefs we could have that would provide a backdrop to growth for a better future where less humans suffer, and well being is increased?  It is this last question I want to explore a bit more in future posts.  I think tied to this is the area of human emotion which I have become more intrigued with of late.  I think that our emotional and reasoning side are more tied together than we think and that without emotions, at least for humans, growth isn’t possible.

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.  I am not sure it’s something that I have any definite answer for so I hope it generates some discussion.  Some people say it’s just something made up by the left, like privilege.  I find such people who say things like that are the most guilty of cultural ignorance and what privilege actually means.  However one of the ways the topic seems to continue to come up is in terms of things like dreadlocks, or Halloween costumes.  Most of the times the topic comes up these don’t seem like really clear cases of cultural appropriation, but I try to listen and think about it more deeply because it is important.  Most recently I was listening to a podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis who is a physician and sociologist who, along with his wife, was at the center of a cultural appropriation issue at Yale.  I’ll get back to him in a second.

As someone who is half Indian (not native, but from India Indian) my life experience has been very different when it comes to cultural emulation.  Indians generally see it as a form of flattery.  Whether we have been visiting their country or whether in Canada.  There is a real sense in the community that we are valued when white Canadians want to eat our food, dance our dances, or dress in our clothing.  Growing up there was nothing more exciting than seeing a white person who could eat a spicy curry and then get up in Indian garb a kick ass on the dance floor doing the bhangra.  My dad was always someone who wanted to learn about other cultures.  We would often go out for dinner to different ethnic restaurants and he would order foods he’d never tried and he would always ask the waiter or waitress what the usual way the food was eating.  He wanted to use chopsticks or fingers where applicable.  For my dad experiencing the culture wasn’t just trying the food but eating it in a way they did.  For my dad, part of understanding culture was living it as much as you could, even if it was only in small ways.  The warmth he received by people of those other cultures for his honest interest and attempts to do as they did always inspired me to have the same attitude in my life.

A recent cultural appropriation incident in the NBA. Lin wears dreads.
A gracious response from Lin. Noting Martin has Mandarin characters as a tattoo.

I have noticed in my time in the U.S. the sentiment being different and it has become more heated in recent years.  Now of course it should make perfect sense.  Some readers might already be saying, well the history of Indians in Canada is different than African-Americans in the U.S.  There is no doubt about it.  Cultural appropriation is a real thing and I think Nicholas Christakis did a good job of defining it in the podcast.

“The notion of cultural appropriation, the kernel of the idea there, is that some communities of people are so denigrated that not only are they killed and wiped out, but all of their ideas and culture is stolen from them, they are effaced and that all that’s left is a kind of caricature of who they are and there is some truth to that …it’s like adding insult to injury…[like] not only do I engage in genocide,  but I take all your ideas and your culture as well and don’t even credit you and who am I to do that?”

There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.  Anybody who doubts the existence of cultural appropriation is blind to some real history.  However, if we are interested in making the world a better place, we still have to answer the question about the best way to move forward.  When I see someone genuinely interested in my culture to the point of wanting to emulate it, I don’t see a thief, I see an ally.  They might not be able to experience the lived experience of being someone of my race, but I see someone willing to defend my rightful place as an equal human in society.  Christakis that things have maybe gone too far:

“…now, the whole history of ideas, culture, art, and music is endless theft.  [because really] it’s endless modification, and transformation and exchange of ideas and of thought and musical and artistic forms and so forth”

I find myself agreeing here.  I mean we could get really ridiculous if we wanted to.  Someone could refer to African-Americans behaving badly as thugs, and this is offensive, because we know what the common usage of that word means, but then if I yelled out…”No that’s not offensive to black people, that’s offensive to me because the word is of Hindu origin and your appropriating my culture!”  As Christakis says to trace back practices and ideas back to one particular culture is tricky business indeed.  Culture has been stolen before, it’s been given, it’s been modified, it’s been incorporated, it’s been fused.  It’s complicated.  How do we right all of the wrongs and still move past it?  I guess we are struggling to answer that question as humans.

As I go back to my personal experience I think what matters most is that attitude you have towards another person’s culture.  If I’ve been discriminated against, which is a painful experience, I certainly don’t want others to experience it, but I want them to understand it.  At the same time I don’t want the best things about my culture to remain hidden, when I can share them.  If people are truly interested in my culture, think it’s beautiful, neat, cool, awesome, fascinating, that to me is when humans come together.  The fact that you might not be able to experience the worst of what I face, doesn’t mean, if you’re interested, that you can’t experience the best of my culture.  At least that’s my attitude.

But it’s true that there are some extremely marginalized groups in this country, and I can’t claim to know what that feels like.  I can understand the source of that frustration given the history, and the fact that we live in a country where many don’t admit there are racial problems, where history is white-washed and there is a lot of glossing over the atrocities in which this country was founded.  There are reasons to be angry, but I still hope there is a path forward.  I still hope there is way to make sure people understand the history and the wrongs that have been done, while still having the wisdom to include those who truly enjoy what your culture has to offer.  I agree that people’s cultures aren’t costumes for Halloween, these are things people of those cultures wear everyday, and so appreciating cultures is also something you do everyday.  I think there are lots of people out there like that and I think it’s something to embrace.

Please share your thoughts, I don’t profess any scholarly knowledge here, and would enjoy hearing other voices on this matter.

*Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about the incident at Yale beyond the article I linked, I encourage to read the e-mail that started it all by Erika Christakis which I thought was a thoughtful one.  You can then watch the YouTube video where Nicholas Christakis is surrounded on campus.  I challenge you to watch the whole video.  I couldn’t stomach the whole thing. He handled the situation as heroically as possible.  Also here is the podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis.  The first hour relates to the incident.

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.