Discussion: Understanding Patriotism

Yesterday, one of my fellow bloggers made a post about how he doesn’t get all the drama surrounding national anthems, whether you stand, sing along, put your hand over your heart etc.  I share his sentiment.  I’m not much for forced rituals that are supposed to have meeting, but seem so common place, overdone, and generally practiced by so many people who don’t even seem to share those values that it just feels superficial.

I’d like to go a step further and say, I just really don’t understand the sentiment that people of your country are somehow more important than people from any other country.  This has been on my mind with the migrant crisis at the border.  You see so many comments from people who at best demonstrate indifference for refugees, to what essentially boils down to disgust.  I can’t for the life of me how the first reaction can’t be one of compassion.  These people are literally dying to get here, being made to suffer in intolerable detention centers because of the conditions that they are fleeing.  Instead of accepting that an entire political party simply uses any excuse to see them as people who need help.  Forget about accepting the fact that we made this problem through our fruitless war on drugs and that we should bear at least some responsibility for helping them now.

And nevermind the fact that when Syrian refugee crisis existed, the most moderate of Republicans well still like…”I won’t take them here, but we can help them over there.”  Meanwhile, I’ve heard when it was suggested that we provide aid to the central American countries as a way of keeping people there, people now say why should we give money to other countries?  Conservatives will talk about all the help American’s need here at home, but they won’t support welfare programs, they don’t put homelessness at the top of their political platforms, they won’t support first responders from 9/11.

I find the disregard for humans in need just insufferable.  Like being American was something most of us tried to do.  It wasn’t a choice, most of us were just born here.  If there is anybody who actually wants to be American it’s the people coming to our borders in need of help.  Accidents of geography are no basis to deny people who are suffering help.  Yet this patriotism banner is being waved like it actually means something.  Just maybe if such people were interested in helping Americans I might just believe it, but it’s all talk.  There are the people who can help, and those that need help.  That’s all.  Nationalism is meaningless to me, unless through that structure you can use that power to make lives better for other people on the planet that sustains us all.

Honestly I just don’t understand.  Anybody else that can help me to understand, I’m all ears.

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Discussion: Innocence and Knowledge

Unexpectedly, I am finding one of the hardest parts as a parent is to decide when should I tell the truth about the realities of the world.  I see the innocence and joy in life my son has, and it breaks my heart to tell him anything that speaks to the suffering that takes in this world.  There is a part of me that wants to preserve that innocence for as long as possible, and yet there is also part of me that wants to prepare him so he has the courage to face it.  I think overall I lean towards the former, because who am I to destroy such unadulterated joy in life?  Pain will find us all, and when it happens I’ll be there.  There is no rush.

But last night I started thinking, why can’t we all be more childlike and experience that joy?  What really causes us to “lose our innocence”.  I don’t think it’s death in of itself.  I don’t think sadness in of itself is what prevents us from experiencing a lot more bliss.

In trying to answer this question about loss of innocence, I started to think what a strange story the Garden of Eden is in Genesis.  The fact that eating from the tree of knowledge is what is referred to as the “fall of man”, the end of paradise (and innocence).  I don’t think knowledge as a whole is a problem.  For the most part knowledge makes me less fearful, less confused, and more likely to course correct in my life.  Life of course can’t be 100% bliss, but I imagined a world in which the only sadness we would experience would be when someone  we love died of natural causes, or natural disasters.  We might experience pain through breakups or moving away from home.  It is a dynamic world and there is an impermanence to all things.  I think such a world would be a more blissful experience, much more child-like.  What really causes us to lose our innocence is finding out the horrible things we do to each other.  That is a weight to bear that changes you forever; for which there is no going back.  If any biblical story in Genesis is going to represent the fall of man it should be when Cain kills his brother in anger (albeit anger due to God’s dissatisfaction with a vegan meal).  Anyway, I don’t really intend to get into a discussion about the Bible, only that as a parent the story struck as very odd even if I believed it was true.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the larger world that we live in, the only things that really break my spirit are is the harm that humans cause each other.  I’ve never sobbed and felt the world was a horrible place because someone died in a flood or of a heart attack.  I am curious as to what other people think about innocence and the loss thereof.  Could we be living in greater bliss than we are?  What does it mean to you “Loss of innocence”?  If you are a parent have you cried tears of happiness at the purity of your child’s joy, and have you also wept when you’ve watched them realized the horrors people commit against each other?  Any thoughts you might have on this topic are welcome.

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.

Additional reading:

That Which Survives

I was thrust into a conversation recently where I debated a Christian fundamentalist on morality.  Particular why would we care about well-being, that only an existing divine moral authority would give us that imperative.

It seems obvious to me that morality is born out of need to learn how to survive best.   And this of course would be different for different species.  An intelligent life that evolved from frogs might simply have large litters and leave them all to fend for themselves and have completely different morals that made sense for their particular mode of survival.  For us as social primates we have our own set of behaviors that make us most successful.  I was then asked over and over again, “Why survive?”  As if the answer could only be some supernatural force at worked.  And yet it seems to me that survival is just the nature of life.  I would go so far as to say if the nature of life was not to survive, there wouldn’t be life.  It’s sort of the very definition of life.  I would imagine that this is part of the definition of life we can most agree on.

Thus it also seems obvious to me that as a species of primates who have evolved to survive rather well through cooperation, we survive best when we are compassionate and kind to others.  Building bonds of trust and empathy are not only some of the most long lasting relationships, but also the most gratifying to our own well being.  But clearly it can’t be so obvious, because there is a lot of the opposite going around.

I started to think that maybe there are two extremes of the type of person you can be.  You can be one who thinks the least of us slow us down and prevent us from living in that wonderful future utopia, or you can one who thinks that it difficult to know who the least of us is.  And that everybody, to a certain extent, has something to teach.  Hopefully, that thing they have to teach isn’t what not to do.  But even those are lessons well learned.  Of course most of us are not those extremes.  But we’re all hoping to be more like one than the other.  I think the former can be measurable shown to be illusion, but if you think the latter is easy to achieve you’d be fooling yourself just as much.    I can personally say that there are moments when the illusion seems simpler, and you find the appeal of the black and white view, even if you know that could never be you.  The latter is the path of humility, a path that asks you to accept uncertainty as property of nature.  Not only must you tolerate it, you must actually welcome it and embrace it.  Such a path can be a painful journey, but the well-being you gain from prostrating yourself under the endless sky of uncertainty, baring your soul to the universe, is immense.  Because it really is the best way to see the stars.   It’s always just seemed apparent to me that humans were naturally kind creatures, because it always seemed to me the reason why we’ve survived until now.  I hope I’m not wrong.

The choice of having children: The Nuts and Bolts

One of the things that has been on my mind a lot lately was inspired by article that talked about why women aren’t choosing to have children in our society.  I was originally going to write about that first, but in my mind I ended up always going into the topic of abortion, and given how much the defunding of Planned Parenthood is being talked about today, I thought I would talk about this controversial subject first, and then follow up with a piece about wanting or not wanting to raise children, because ultimately much of what I will talk about here feeds into that.

Recently my wife and I had our first night away, together, from our child who is now 19 months old.  It was a weird place in both our minds because it felt like we were fighting some primal urge, vs some rational thinking machine.  One was very emotional and was worried about the stress on my wife’s parents who were watching him, worried about whether he would wonder if we just left him, worried that he was crying helpless wondering where mommy and daddy was.  The other part of us was thinking how good this was for him and us.  He was with people who loved him and quite capable of taking care of him.  And it was healthy for us to have some time away together, because it certainly is a good thing for a baby who have parents who have a strong friendship and love and some time away certainly helped that.  Also in the long run this was beneficial for healthy sleep patterns, gaining independence and trust.

The trap in the thinking here, is that we often believe that these are almost two separate parts of us.  One might criticize us for being too emotional, and another would criticize us for being too rational about it.  Of course both are evolved and necessary parts of what makes us who we are.  Those strong emotions we feel are extremely important for protecting and bonding with the child.  That rational part of us is there to make sure we do it in the best way possible.  It can be a see saw at times and we all vary in how much we let one side take a hold over the other.  The point is that regardless of the emotions you feel, it is also sensible.  It is sensible to be emotional, and it is sensible to be rational.

This leads us to a very uncomfortable thing that few of us want to admit about child rearing.  It really boils down to a lot of math.  We need both the emotional and the rational, but the one that win depends a lot on circumstances.  It could be circumstances of the environment, culture, family values, etc, but there is natural state of a human that favors one side or the other.  My mom told me once that she couldn’t accept that I was just a biological thing that happened, and that part of her belief in religion is founded on the fact that she sees things as much more than the sum of their parts.  The thing is, I feel the same way, but I also know that it is part of our biology to do so.  And all of that to me is amazing even if it is explainable.  But our brains are constantly working to make decisions that ensure both our survival and our genes survival, and the emotions we feel, and the rational decisions we make support that drive in us.  It gets even more confusing given that the rational part of us tends to actually make us feel like our emotions are rational.  “I really want that piece of cheesecake, but am trying to lose weight.”  Suddenly you start to rationalize…well I’ll just have a small piece, or so-and-so makes such good cheesecake it would be rude not to have some…I’ll spend an extra half hour at the gym tomorrow.  We’ve all been in this situation before, even if not about cheesecake. 🙂

So let’s take a look at some of the math of having children.  But before we start let’s remind ourselves that while we may live in a modern world where we have smartphones, cable TV, and airplanes, but from an evolutionary standpoint our brains haven’t progressed much from the stone age.  A couple hundred thousand years ago, when man was relatively what is today in terms of brain size and structure, is really a blink of an eye on the time scale of evolution.  Now we know that we are a social creature, but we didn’t live in populations like we do today.  As hunter gatherers we searched every day for food and lived in groups of around 200 people.  If you or someone you know has been pregnant and you’ve seen them go through it, you know a lot changes in them.  They tend to have less energy on average, and they tend to require more resources.  More water and more food.  In a group of 200 people where everybody has to pull their own weight, having less to give to the tribe in terms of energy, and you are taking more energy away from them as you require more resources.  You are a drain to your group.  Now certainly a necessary one, and I’m sure no one minds since in egalitarian groups such as hunter gatherers the ability to help as a community was strong, and of course later you’d be expected to do extra duty to help out other women who were pregnant.  But that doesn’t change the math one bit.  So one woman getting pregnant wasn’t too bad, but if all the women got pregnant at the same time, that would probably be bad.  Once the child is born of course resources get even more drained, because that new member will need calories as well.  Hunter gatherers needed to practice population control making sure the group didn’t get too big and also not too small.  Furthermore, small children were a strain on mobility.  My son at his age, still requires being carried a lot, and even though he sometimes likes to walk it’s not overly fast and, more importantly, not the direction you want him to move in.  His cousin however who is 4 and half and can keep up quite well, and will respond to voice commands even if somewhat reluctantly. 🙂  Anthropological evidence shows that women spaced their children apart about 4 years apart at minimum so make sure that their child was old enough to keep up with a tribe.  Most hunter gatherer tribes were not sedentary for very long.  After using the resources in one area that had to move until that previous areas recovered.  And depending on the environment, they may have had to make very long treks.  The luxury of having children at will, would not come until the age of agriculture.  An important theme that I will by discussing throughout this series, is to remember that our evolutionary advantage is our intelligence.  Everything reproduces, but we found a way to make having one children at a time work and make smart decisions about how many children to have and when to have them.

Abortion is by far not a new thing, but it is at the very least a more advanced process considering what life was like pre-civilization.  Despite the cool rational population control practiced by hunter gatherers, mistakes were going to happen.  Sex after all is pretty fun, as it needs to be, in order for us to want to reproduce, but the best laid plans go awry.  They do today and they did back then.  For them it could have been not as many people got eaten by lions that year, or not as many of the older people in the tribe died and populations were approaching critical.  Likely they would still try to survive, but the wild card that likely created the most population pressure was the environment (A great book on the impact of the medieval warming period on aboriginal tribes throughout north america and Europe can be found on Amazon here).  Perhaps it was a long term climate trend, drought, or some geological catastrophe blocked a passage they normally took to areas where they knew food was, or some other resource was scarce.  Whatever the case, evidence also indicates that infanticide was common.  It’s likely the rates were around 15-20% (I’m sorry the source is wikipedia here under the paleolithic and neolithic sections, but references are given on the page), which is extremely high given that even the worse abortion rates now are at around 5%.  Despite the emotional trauma the parents must have went through, with abortions not possible, this was the only way to make sure that a larger portions of the group didn’t starve to death.  And in an extremely cold and rational way, the truth is, the mother can always have another baby when situations allow, but an extra member of the tribe, until early adulthood, was a drain on resources.  We are made of finite energy, and we have to unfortunately look at ourselves as an energy budget, a tribe or group as the combined energy budget, which while more efficient is still finite.  So if anything, human history has helped us not only have more children, but see less overall (as a percentage) die.

I am going to end this here with the thought of our finite nature, and continue in my next post to talk about some of the more modern day points about abortion, and why people who are anti-abortion aren’t helping (and in fact making things worse), and give them some realistic suggestions about how they can actually help reach their goal of an abortion free world.