10.31.2008

Empathic Rationalism with Amysticism as a Personal Philosophy


I'm not really an atheist. That might or might not surprise some people. No I haven't gotten religion in any way shape or form, nor am I likely to any time soon. But to consider myself a skeptic I can't call myself a true atheist. I think of myself as an agmystic. Hopefully the meaning of that term will become clear shortly.

Being true to my personal ideal:

Truth be told, if fundamentalist religion had not become such a political force in this country I wouldn't give any of it a second thought. During my youth religion seemed to have become just another bit of background noise, an essentially harmless exercise which on occasion actually did some good in the world. It was a dinner topic to be politely avoided in the interest of harmony and open-mindedness. The Bible was at best allegorical and only the most ignorant uneducated and backward country people I encountered believed it literally. At worst it seemed no more than an occasional nuisance to people who weren't into it and not answering the door to well dressed intruders seemed an adequate defense from its siren's call. Ecumenical movements were in full swing and it looked as if the whole thing would slowly blow away on the winds of change. Those rural churches still railed against evolution, etc., but it seemed as if the battle was winding down. There were still devotees out doing great works helping people but I sensed that these people would have still been out doing their good works whether in God's name or merely for the sake of the work that needed doing. That turned out to be extremely naive. Obviously while many of us moved on, religion was fermenting below the surface and mutating back into a much more virulent and less tolerant strain that filled a void in the minds and hearts of many people. And not just mainstream Christianity. Off shoots such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses gained membership as well. Then the big box churches came along offering a perfect mixture of Sunday piety with never-having-to-say-you-are-sorry capitalism and carte blanc' to feel superior to the people you shunned. Things took off in a particularly nasty direction and this new faith movement appealed to a surprising number of the well educated. Insidious resistance to science education by the fundamentalists began to pay off and a huge percentage of Americans became scientifically illiterate as a result. Such apparently was the draw of religion that a 4th rate science fiction writer, who admitted that founding a religion would be more lucrative than writing pulp, can be blamed for one of the fastest growing new religions (more a repackaging since the whole thetan thing smacks of original sin, etc.). So we find ourselves having gone one step forward and 3 steps back and having to deal with the resurgence of theology more akin to its historical antecedents from the 13th century than the ideals of the 1960's. It is supremely ironic that many of the people who continue to rail against communism and liberal group think have no problem joining the collective on Sunday so that they can be told how to think and how to force the rest of us into line. The power of rationalization compels thee! The power of rationalization compels thee! It was this resurgence in the political influence of religion that required me (and others like me) to begin to consider religion once again and include any consideration of it in day to day activities. Prior to that, I felt no particular need to define beliefs with regards to gods.

Do I think deities exist? No. I find the evidence to either be unconvincing or nonexistent. The weight of evidence against seems overwhelming. But I hold out little hope that any believers will be swayed by these facts or any other logical arguments. To my mind, the essential problem with discussions about religion was summarized as well as it ever will be by Augustine centuries earlier: “Faith is to believe what we do not see; and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe." I'm not sure he meant it in the same way that I interpret it but no matter. You can't successfully argue with such perfect circular logic. It's like putting your intellectual wagons in a circle so that no new idea has a chance of penetrating the defenses. New facts can be ignored or molded to fit the preconception. The entire Intelligent Design movement (other than those who are just bald-faced liars) is a tribute to this approach. Since I don't approach the problems from that convenient vantage point, the evidence that has been put forth to support theology fails to be convincing. "How do I know, the Bible tells me so", was a line from a childhood song. Unfortunately it would seem that many adults essentially accept this as an explanation though often with more obscure phraseology. Absent some other reasonable support for a religious position I really can't get too excited about further arguments. For now I am perfectly content to ignore theology until such time as anything new or interesting comes down the pike - except when it leaves the pulpit and approaches the podium.

Why avoid the label of atheist if theology does not enter into my day to day thinking and I think that the existence of deities is extraordinarily unlikely? At one level it's really to keep myself honest, nothing more. Hard as I try I often have a hard time being rational in the ideal sense. Consistency is one of the ways I stay true to my belief in rational thought. The way that biologists refer to the theory of evolution, I think, is a perfect example of staying true to the facts and rationality. It is well documented that evolution happens. We have seen it and identified many of the mechanisms that drive it. What remains a theory is that evolution resulted in the tree of life on earth and that this accounts for the presence of modern humans, among others. That remains a theory (albeit one supported by every single shred of existing scientific evidence across numerous disciplines) because we weren't there to actually see it happen in that precise way. Yes, that is a pretty harsh standard of proof but a good one in science and critical analysis. Being tentative rather than absolute makes one better able to adapt to new knowledge. I believe the same goes for what we don't observe. We often get all over non-scientists with the old saw of 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence'. The same can be said about deities. The claim theists make is true at some level – we can't prove they don't exist (deities not theists). Now admittedly I feel that the probability of deities is exceedingly small. So small that I operate in the universe ignoring the variable that gods of any kind might introduce into my calculations of daily living, but that is not the same as knowing that they do not exist period. For me as a skeptic then I feel that I have to refrain from the absolute when knowledge demands that I do. That's the most skeptical position I can take. I'm not trying to start any philosophical movements just trying use logic as best as I can according to my understanding. Bring me proof or compelling evidence and I will be happy to consider it and change my position as the facts demand.

I know that not 'admitting to atheism' is equated to intellectual cowardice by people such as Richard Dawkins, but I feel that it is the most honest position I can take based upon my world view. Others feel differently and if the label of atheist works for them that's great too. For me the tiny acknowledgment of possibility has often been enough to find common ground with people who feel very strongly about their religions. And as much as I admire experts and teachers such as Dawkins and Dennett I think that their zeal is off putting to more moderate people who might otherwise be reached by their eloquent discussions. But that is just my opinion.

Too Restrictive:

Atheism or agnosticism or any of the other of the 'theisms' is too restrictive of a term for what I am. It implies a much larger role for theism in my view of the world, a topic to which I will return later. Calling someone atheist or agnostic makes it seem as if this one category is what defines an entire being (a D'Souza favorite!). People are constantly trying to pigeon-hole us into some convenient category. They want to sell us something, dismiss us, convince us, disenfranchise us or rarely, understand us. As if this one feature is the most important aspect of this person or the only one worthy of note. It's similar to those whose antiabortion position takes such precedence over everything that they find themselves supporting people who, theoretically at least, would seem to stand for a whole host of other things they should or would normally oppose. Rejecting magical thinking is simply one aspect of who I am. As I said earlier, I could care less. I am a religious fundamentalist – I fundamentally do not care what you chose to believe about religion as long as you keep it out of government or the public arena. It's only power over my life is the constant insistence of one or the other of its adherents who think that they need to tell me how to live or think. Neither religion nor its absence creates a void in my life nor does it hold a favored position amongst a whole host of disciplines which require magical thinking. This later fact is why I prefer the term 'agmystic' (as opposed to agnostic) to describe my feelings on all of these matters.

Why Agmysticism?

I think of myself as an Agmystic rather than an agnostic for the simple reason that I also don't put any stock in ghosts, witches, gnomes, fairies, ESP, astrology, magic, taro cards, psychics, deities, spirits, wraiths, poltergeists, fortune tellers, telepathy, telekinesis, levitation, astral projection, palmists, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc. For many people their angst over their personal deity is paramount but for me it's just one subheading in a metaphysical waste basket file of equally unfounded beliefs in paranormal entities or processes. Or perhaps a more accurate description is that I don't think there is a single shred of empirical evidence that any of these things exist outside of human minds and literature. As a youth I had a pretty simple rule of thumb: if it requires magic it's fiction. That rule was enough to vanquish the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Catholicism and Reaganomics. As I got older I refined my criteria: if it violates the laws of physics it's fiction.

It isn't who I am

The absence of religion in my life is not the central pillar of my being; it is merely a byproduct of my approach to life. Pleasing (or worrying about displeasing) what I consider to be nonexistent deities is not part of my day. Nor is following a bunch of rules advocated by this or that group of middle eastern herders or merchants anywhere from 4ooo to 1400 years in the past. I've read the Torah, Bible and most of the Koran and that's still all it seems to me. They smack not of the divine but rather of the factual limitations of uneducated societies long since past. The parts that remain timely in these books have little to do with the rigid structures they advocate or the deity defined but mostly are good common-sensical approaches to human interaction. The practical advice is good but is obscured or even subverted by the canon. But there are kernels of truth in these texts which recur. The golden rule appeared well before the wrapper of the New Testament was written to try and co-opt it. Some of these pragmatic approaches provide a pretty good template for treading lightly amongst your fellow man. (Too bad all the secret handshakes have taken on so much importance at the expense of the messaging.) These texts served that function well but I don't feel any pull to go back and study them further each day seeking some factoid which would serve the same purpose to me as reading my horoscope. So what does form the basis of how I try (with varying degrees of success from day to day) to live my life? It's pretty simple - what I aim for is a balance of empathy and rationalism.

Historical digression

Part of my world view admittedly was ceded to me by my father though he retained his Catholicism where I did not. His way of looking at the world drove me crazy as a kid. It was only later that I realized that he and I viewed the world in similar fashion. Nature vs nurture? Who knows; probably a combination. (I was dreadfully anthropomorphic as a child so empathy found fertile ground.) He didn't make me a skeptic – my eyes, ears, memories and experiences did that. But he had an enormous impact on how I viewed and interacted with others. When I was griped in an emotional response to someone else's actions he had this maddening tendency to ask why I thought the other person was acting in such a way? Drove me crazy! Imagine being quietly asked to terminate a perfectly good rant and stop to consider someone else's point of view. And then to have to imagine how MY actions might have been construed. Gently guided by one of those greatest generation survivors of WWII. (He somehow attained the rank of Sargeant before his actual 18th birthday – I am sure the only lie the man ever told in over 80 years of living.) Not that he ever tried to make it seem if everything was my fault, but rather that my perspective was only one of many. It was positively un-American. The notion of it was long embedded into my thinking before I even knew what it was called – empathy. The exact opposite of teen narcissism. To imagine that the perspective of others should be at least a partial guide to your thinking was imprinted on during all those formative years. It persists to this day. I caught a little twinkle in my Dad's eye one time when he over heard me talking to my daughter about why one of her friends might be behaving a certain way. Another link in the chain... I was one of the very lucky ones. I had a father that I could look up to and whose stature has only grown through the knowing.

My mind always tended toward the rational and the skeptical. But the addition of the empathy made me the mutant I am today. Some situations require snap judgments and quick actions but most do not. Most situations lend themselves well to empathetic rationalism. Some might consider that an oxymoron but I beg to differ. Rationalism does not have to be counter to empathy but it does help to define reasonable limits. A common misconception is that empathy is the same as unconditional love. I don't think it is. It is very possible to empathetically put yourself into some one else's shoes and rationally determine that the best explanation for their behavior is that the person really is a scurrilous bastard! And be done with them. As the late great Bertrand Russell said; "You need to be open minded, but not so open that your brains fall out." Empathy does not require one to be a door mat. This approach has seemed to work pretty well for me. I learn a lot from others and about myself through their eyes. The rational part allows me to sort through their perceptions and either accept or reject their perspectives.

Do I think that there is any hope that this type of thinking may become more pervasive? Maybe through education and the exposure of children to fresh ideas and perspectives (one of the many reasons I oppose school vouchers). In time, the kids of today may slowly break away from the limitations of their parents thinking.
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(With apologies to Ste BG. I have been planning on this one for some time but hope the overlap is not problematic.)

10.30.2008

The Cthulhu You Never Knew; the final fate of H.P. Lovecraft

The Creeping Realization...

While searching the library stacks of old Miskatonic University I began to experience a growing dread that welled higher and higher into my throat until my tongue almost swelled to the size of an unholy kumquat and blocked my windpipe. Man was never meant to ponder such things as exist beyond our daily vision even with glasses or contacts and those poor souls who do oft are driven mad! MAD! What was it that created such terror as had never been experienced by a living man outside of the stomach of one of the Old Ones? It was the question that was burning in my mind, threatening to paralyze me and rob the last vestiges of my sanity, though admittedly that would only be a misdemeanor - NO stay focused. Could it indeed be true? The fright is almost too much to bear but before I succumb I will struggle to share my tale with those who might one day be able to find the answer where I have not.

It is an old one and it reaches to the very heart of creation itself – Is The flying Spaghetti Monster the modern manifestation of Cthulhu? There I have said it. I hope that by breaching a wall not meant to be scaled that I have not doomed you as well through the knowing - well not the knowing exactly, more just the mentioning. There is probably little time left but before I am swallowed whole either in the vile tentacles of a herring-breathed monster or nurtured in the loving embrace of His noodley appendages I will rush to complete my story. Please forgive me for my haste and lack of a cogent story line. But man's terror when eying the abyss does not lend itself to linear narrative.

Could Cthulhu be primitive man’s attempt to describe TFSM? It stands to reason. Consider for a moment that the ancients had not yet tasted of the wheaty bounty that is pasta. Seeing his Noodley appendages might they not have mistaken them for the tentacles of a sea creature? Perhaps a faint hint of anchovies in his divine pesto made them wonder. Or might the name Cthulhu itself be spaghetti in an ancient tongue when one's mouth is filled with his bounty? The mind screams with the implications of it all. To see his strange visage gliding among the clouds they no doubt might have feared the worst. Having eaten so many spaghetti o's as a child I know that I would! Perhaps his attempts to communicate with them were misinterpreted. When he tried to explain the joys of national talk-like-a-pirate-day, did they think he meant for them to make war on their neighbors? Did the tense of 'to eat' get mistranslated leading to all those stories of souls like so many jelly beans? One hopes against hope that this is not so.

But you no doubt wonder about the dichotomy that threatens this dread theory. Cthulhu is considered evil (or at least extremely nonchalant about all those souls he devours...) while TFSM is benignity and creator incarnate - defender against evolution. How could such a thing be reconciled? Wait! Maybe we could separate the ancient accounts of Cthulhu’s hatefulness, recurrent smiting, and unfortunate appetite for souls and TFSM’s benevolence into separate accounts or books. One could be a testament to the old and one the new. No, alas this could not work for surely no rational being would believe that two such differing personalities could be the same. Or would they? Is there no precedent for this? My mind fails me for somewhere in a dark corner, a flicker of remembrance comes and then is gone. No matter, I have no time to write such stories of sufficient length and complexity that there internal inconsistencies might be missed. Perhaps extensive family tree discussions might cloud their minds and cause people to miss any discordant facts.

Alas the union of Cthulhu with TFSM will take the efforts of greater men than I. Perhaps Asylum Seeker or Ste Brian will succeed where I have failed. For now I take solace in but one thing – since I do not live in Afghanistan, I can record this saga in the comfort of knowing that 20 years in prison is not the best for which I can hope…

Oh my! He is here now and more terrifing than an HR Giger painting, or even more terrible - trying to explain having an HR Giger painting to your mother. I am doomed. What's that you say great tentacle-faced Old One? Gear Head ED shall suffer greatly for spoiling your surprise. Perhaps he will be trapped in one of your gastric diverticuli so as to be digested even more slowly?... EEWWW! Or, even worse, OH NO NOT THAT - forced to work in the G.W. Bush library until he reaches the post meltdown retirement age! My mind snaps, and darkness ensues...

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HPL-2

Happy Halloween!

10.28.2008

Rascal's Ante: A Mutant's Response to Pascal's Wager


Pascal's 17th century wager is often cited as a logical argument in favor of belief in a Christian God and is one of the earliest known arguments using what is essentially games theory. It has often seemed strange to me that people feel compelled to create logic driven arguments for what essentially comes down to 'believe it or not' but some of my friends and I had some fun with this one both pro and con because we love to argue about almost everything. (This argument is meant for entertainment purposes only... really! Apply your tongue firmly against your cheek before you read any more.)

The wager:

What follows is an essential restatement of the wager although Pascal himself tended to emphasize the positive aspects rather than the possibility of hell (another aspect which separates him from some of his modern analogs). The wager states that reason requires one to believe in (a Christian) god because either God exists or does not. If God exists and one bets against his existence one loses the infinite prize of eternal life with God. If God exists and one bets for God then the reward is infinite. If God doesn't exist and you vote for him you have lost nothing. If God doesn't exist and you don't believe then again you have lost nothing. Therefore, in Pascal's wager all possible options are contained in a 2 x 2 matrix but all the weight resides in two of the cells – infinite joy or infinite sorrow. Ergo, prudence argues for betting on God's existence for no other reason than the fact that the stakes are so high if you are wrong.

It is not a particularly pious form of spirituality but it has a certain cynical logic to it. And in fairness to Pascal, there is an important caveat which he stressed but many modern co-opters fail to mention. He did not consider this an end but merely the beginning of a search for faith. A seed as it were.

The Critical Central Assumption: God beyond Reason

Like most broad-stroke philosophies this one only makes sense if certain assumptions or premises are factual. If these premises are false then Pascal's assertion is meaningless or even potentially harmful. What is the lynch pin of Pascal's wager? Quite simply, the wager is based upon the assumption that God is beyond reason. But I will argue that if the Bible is true, which must be the case for the wager to have the infinite value Pascal describes, the central premise of Pascal's assertion must be false. I refer to this as Rascal's Ante (as opposed to my auntie's for she would be very upset with me). If the Bible is not true then the promise of eternal life central to the wager is invalid, rendering the foundations of Pascal's argument meaningless. I will endeavor to show that God cannot be beyond reason if the Bible is true. Let me repeat: Pascal asserts that reason and observation of the natural world alone are incapable of revealing the true nature of the universe (and God) which only can be gleaned through religion and faith. Since God is beyond reason, then faith in God as a matter of course must become reasonable because of the stakes in the wager – eternal life vs death. But a cursory reading of the Bible can refute this cornerstone of the argument of God being beyond reason and observation. In fact, for the Bible to be true as written God must not be beyond reason.

Rascal's Ante: Refuting the Central Assumption: God within reason:

The Bible makes explicit statements about the nature of Man which contradicts Pascal's argument. Christian doctrine states that Man was created in God's image - Genesis 1:26: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Here it is reasonable to assume that God is speaking metaphorically rather than literally.) If this is so (and if not, then Christian doctrine is false and therefore Christianity includes false doctrine, a possibility to which we will return later), then reason can be used to assess the core of religion. How? If Man is created in God's image, then it is reasonable and logical to conclude that at least some of God's characteristics can be reasonably inferred by a study of Man's characteristics which is a proven scientific method for categorizing related species. For Man to be made in God's image then Man must share some of the traits that God processes or values. As Man is often a curious, pensive and skeptical creature constantly searching to learn and unravel the nature of existence (central components of our being), and if created in the image of God, is it not reasonable to assume that these traits, if not actually 'God like', are at least favored traits by God? Since Man was not created in the image of sheep it seems reasonable to state that mindless following of the herd is not God-like behavior. God of course cannot by definition be a follower or a sheep – who would God follow? If God created the universe then it is obvious that God is a self-starter who favors his own council. These traits and many others are reasonable assumptions based upon statements made in the Bible. Nor were we created in the image of a slug, cow, sponge or any other incurious creature and so on.

The Bible provides additional ammunition to the claim that we can reasonably make some determinations about God: God is defined as a perfect being. This will have importance later on in the discussion but for now it is sufficient to remember that God, as a perfect being, cannot have any traits that humans consider imperfect in themselves as they are created in God's image which must be the wellspring of our understanding of perfection if the Bible is true. God must be incapable of imperfection. (a bit of a theological conundrum right there. An existential version of the classic rock too big to carry argument that we all had as kids. If God is all powerful can God be imperfect if desired? ). If not, then Christian doctrine is false and the wager is invalid.

Potential Objections:
  • Some may retort that the Bible also includes examples of God demanding blind obedience of his creation such as Abraham and Isaac, or Moses striking the rock twice instead of once to start the flow of water, however, in all these cases, God directly communicated with the individual in question leaving no doubt as to his existence (assuming Biblical accuracy).
  • A second line of argument could be that not all of God can be discerned from a study of Man because Man, a corporal entity, is by definition less than God. True, but logic would not suggest that attributes conflicting with Man's traits should be considered as central to God's 'personality'. Such conflicts would be indicative of imperfection which would negate Biblical doctrine. Inviolate Biblical doctrine is central to Pascal's wager.
  • A third objection is the translation of 'in his image'. One cannot rationally assume that this implies physical likeness to a non-corporeal being so is it reasonable to assume that this is a somewhat metaphorical statement. And if this translation is false it a priori calls the Bible into question.
  • A fourth objection might be the notion of original sin. Clearly God did not make Man identical in thinking to himself (or did He? The Old Testament reveals many examples of what we would certainly think of as fairly human reactions often lacking in obvious empathy) or the Bible's doctrine of infallibility would be void. Frankly however, original sin is a problem for Christianity for the accounting of the events in the Garden of Eden reads like a behavioral experiment testing 'nurture over nature' which suggests the possibility of a non-beneficent God testing an interesting subject.
  • Pliny you are a @#%%#%^!* toad! A potential objection but hardly proof of illogical argument.
Implications of a God Within Reason:

If Man's appetite for knowledge is not patterned after God then Pascal's assertion might be proven partially right – at least as far as reason being of no help in making determinations about religion. But his wager would lose its luster for if false, Pascal's probability of a favorable outcome would become invalid whether God existed or not.

Why? Because if Man is not patterned after God then Christian doctrine is false and no reasonable determination as to what, if any, part of it could be reasonably used to guide behavior and belief (up to and including even a belief in God). If this central tenant were wrong then it would be reasonable to assume that other central doctrines were also flawed and might justly be ignored if logic is our guide. The possibility of false doctrine adds considerably to the complexity of deciding to believe purely on logical grounds since the infinite reward, so critical to the original wager, is invalidated.

In the case of an extant God and a false doctrine, then the doctrine can provide no reliable and rational insight into God's wishes. One would be better off not betting at all and merely living a decent life and letting the chips fall as they may because the probability of following false doctrines (with potentially dire consequences) is indeterminable. This approach would minimize conflicts with the living irrespective of any postmortem considerations. There would be no rational way to be sure of what God wants of us and we would be better served to live life as we see fit and at least be judged on our true merits if at all. And an extant God would of course know this and recognize the confusion created by false doctrine if God were benign or caring. If not, then there would be no reasonable way to choose amongst the various doctrines in order to try to divine the hidden path that God would prefer one to take.

If God did not exist (proof enough to repudiate all Christian doctrine with no additions) then again one is better off living a decent life and devoting no resources to false belief structures which will return no benefits. Pascal and his modern parrots wrongly state that there is no cost to belief if false. Resources, time and angst associated with the support of a false religion is quite a burden even excluding the ripple effect on others of potential prejudices and persecutions predicated on false doctrines. Resources spent on non-existent souls would be better applied to shared problems that are more amenable to reason.

More Patterns for Living:

However, if Man is patterned after God as can be reasonably inferred from the Bible, then it is reasonable to infer God values curiosity and intellect. Why? Because ignorance and sheepish devotion are the tools used by human tyrants and con artists not divine beneficence. If so, then one is likely to use these mental talents to consider the plethora of divergent sects within Christianity as well as the even bigger problem of other major religions. Logical analysis of this conundrum leaves one faced with at least 7 choices, none of which favors blind obedience: 1) the variation in religions is a false construct created by men which obfuscates God's truth; 2) The variations are the work of an evil analog to God meant to obfuscate truth; 3) God is not benevolent; 4) the variations are indicative of competing gods; 5) God is not around; 6) it's all made up, or 7) skeptical beings are an undesirable mutation.

  1. The variation in religions is a false construct created by men which obfuscates God's truth: If this scenario is true and faced with an absence of overt and objective clues to the truth left in plain sight by God for the benefit of his curious and skeptical progeny, then it is reasonable to conclude that a God favoring reason would 1) possibly be testing our reasoning skills, and/or 2) understand the dilemma faced by humans and make some accommodation. In such a case a rational being would be unable to reasonably sort out which doctrines (institutionalized over centuries) were false and would be forced to use reason and observable facts to guide behavior even if the facts did not support the demonstrable existence of God. This is consistent with a God who is perfect and therefore required to be far more loving, understanding and compassionate than humans who are less than perfect. Humans cannot, by Bible definition, be more just and forgiving than God and since some humans have demonstrated love and compassion to those who reject their values or even harm them, a God as described by the Bible must be even more compassionate if the Bible is correct. So if the Bible is true, a perfect God could not hold his creation to a standard less perfect than they themselves can exercise. If not, then God is imperfect, Christian doctrine is false and Pascal's wager is invalidated. A God valuing reason would be most pleased with the individual who refused to be cowered by superstition, false loyalty or absent evidence.
  2. The variations are the work of an evil analog to God meant to obfuscate truth: If an evil analog of God (let's call him Satan for purposes of convention) is able to proliferate all the false religions and create an extraordinary tapestry of data across dozens of scientific disciplines comprehensive enough to fool the most intelligent of men while God does nothing to dissuade the inquisitive mind, then Christian doctrine is in crisis. Or God, having made us in His image would have to be an ignorant dullard incapable of reason which seems unlikely of a universal creator (though it might account for the seeming evolutionary cut and pasting seen in living organisms allowing for a new theory of 'somewhat intelligent design'.) No entity save God himself is described as having such power in the Bible. So for this scenario to be true, then either the doctrine is wrong about Man's relationship to God and intellect, skepticism and curiosity are not valued traits, or it is falsifying and minimizing the threat posed by Satan. Or it is misrepresenting the very nature of Satan by describing him as a fallen angel. Even more difficult is the fact that the false beliefs strewn about could be any (or even all) of the faiths. How is a rational being to navigate this greatest of minefields? Again living a decent (and secular) life is the most reasonable course. God would know of Man's dilemma and the confusion sown in Satan's wake and if at all merciful, show compassion to his confused flock. This is required of a perfect God who made us in his image: since imperfect humans are capable of such selfless compassion, a perfect God must be more so. And if unable to defeat the power of evil then we would all be toast anyway so living a falsely pious life would an expensive waste of effort unless Satan himself gets religion or turns out to have a lot more of Milton in him than Augustine or Tim LaHaye.
  3. The variations are indicative of competing gods: If so then all bets are off because the rational being has no way to determine which gods to follow if any. Clearly the existence of multiple gods would falsify Christian doctrine (predicated on only one, albeit one wearing many hats.) and call in to question the validity and reasonableness of expecting whether a god who has been thusly misrepresented is able or willing to care for believers for all time which is the crux of Pascal's assertion. The Bible itself hints at the possibility of other gods. The Ten Commandments warn against 'having any other gods before me'. The commandment is not implicitly clear as to whether other gods exist or merely are wrongly worshiped. Moses' encounter with the Egyptian priests (the fighting serpents) also is suggestive of either competing gods or the existence of magic which many contemporary Christians rail against. Once again, a decent life devoid of religious entanglements is the reasonable choice in this scenario.
  4. God is not benevolent: This scenario is a particular bummer. Essentially the same scenario as # 2 with the same reasonable approach and outcome with even less of an upside to pious devotion. The Bible itself hints at this possibility by positing an all knowing and all seeing God who clearly would have known the results of the Garden of Eden experiment before hand. To what benign purpose would setting up two innocents to fail contribute? This does not mean that God would have to be a mean god, merely apathetic to the plight of humanity. This is not an unreasonable possibility based upon historical events in human history. This scenario would also include the experimenter God who's interest in humanity would be dispassionate.
  5. God is not around: This does not have mean that one must agree with anything said by Nietche. God might be away or otherwise engaged, possibly even off somewhere blowing cosmic bubbles that will become new universes. The rational selection remains the secular and decent life filled with questions and concrete pursuits which would likely impress such a builder god more than coming back to find a stagnant world filled with doe-eyed acolytes or perhaps God would not care either way.
  6. It's all made up: A reasonable person might rationally come to the conclusion that all is fiction based upon the extant conflicting doctrines. It is more reasonable to conclude that because so many people vehemently believe in mutually exclusive faiths, it is an indication of a human origin for all religion as opposed to an explanation requiring a loving and compassionate god associated with only one. Why? Because a reasonable person would expect a God having any interest in his children to help show the way to truth a bit more clearly than a bronze age anthology, oft rabidly quoted by strange men whose chief attributes seem to be a loud voice, an obsession with money, the power to completely suspend credulity and the ability to convert His name from one to two, or even three syllables. Here again, the decent self-directed life is the best wager.
  7. Skeptical beings are an undesirable mutation. If this is a case and you happen to be one of the sorry mutants you may as well just eat right, exercise and live a decent life and enjoy what you can because you will eventually be culled from the flock because like Thomas or Moses, you will at some time test the limits or start a blog and get smacked down hard. You won't be able to help it. It's in your nature...
In summary, it is more rational, based upon either the truth or fiction of the Bible, to conclude that a decent life spent without religious encumberment (as if God does not exist in Christian form) is a more rational wager and strategy than Pascal's assertion whether or not the Christian God is, or is not, the one true God. If the Bible is true then Man patterned after God will not believe the contents of the Bible which are in conflict with empirical evidence. This creates a fatal exception requiring a hard psychic reboot. After the restart it is best to avoid the affected program and quietly go about your business. Or buy a Mac. Others may disagree of course... about the Mac, I mean...

Have fun with this one!

10.27.2008

The Mind Killer: Cognitive Biases Enrolled in the Service of Fear


“Fear is the mind killer...” Frank Herbert, 'Dune'

There was a highly regarded woman who was buried in Eastern Oregon a week or so back. There was no national media attention. Millions of dollars were not donated to the Red Cross for her family or the families of those who died like her. Nations will not be invaded in her name, and civil rights will not be revoked to punish anyone suspected in her death or the 16,000 or so that will die violently like her this year. You see she did not die in the Pentagon or the WTC but joined the 84,770 killed on our nation's highways by drunk drivers in the years 2001-2006 and the roughly 33,000 that joined or will join them in 2007-2008. 2973 people died during the terrorist attacks in NYC and Washington DC in Sept of 2001. But 40 times more people have been killed by drunk drivers or in drunk driving accidents since 2001 than on 9/11/2001 by terrorists and 5.5x will die in this year alone. Drunk drivers account for between 30-40% of all traffic fatalities. So more than 80x more people died on U.S. roads in the last 6-7 years than died on 9/11/2001.

According to the EPA, between 8000 and 45,000 Americans will die each year from radon-induced lung cancer (best estimate 21,000).

So then explain why people who have no trouble getting into a car or going down into their basements are still afraid to visit NYC, or sheepishly disrobe in front of rent-a-cops in the airport while relinquishing their toothpaste without complaint? In Washington State when the Governor suggested that road blocks be instituted to catch drunks, the citizenry was up in arms about this 'unnecessary intrusion without just cause', yet body scans and pat downs for random airline passengers fails to start a traveler's revolt. Based upon factual risk assessment something is greatly amiss.

Don't get me wrong. The attacks on the WTC and Pentagon were unspeakable acts of evil. But the deaths of the innocents killed by drunk drivers are no less tragic than any other violent death. Each year hundreds of people die in fires, accidents, crimes, etc. Their terror, suffering and tragedy for those left behind is no less than those who died in the WTC.

Fear is a very useful evolutionary facet that comes in quite handy and was critical for our early survival. But like most things fear is a double-edged sword. In appropriate doses it protects us from harm and rash decisions but in larger doses it can paralyze us or serve us up to those who use fear as a tool of manipulation and control. Fear is a great motivator and properly nurtured you can use it to make people do almost anything. Use fear to turn the heat up just a bit at a time and you can boil a lot of frogs. Just ask Karl Rove (spit).

Why are we so obsessed with one event? I think the answer is a combination of cognitive vulnerabilities exploited by masters of manipulation and poor leadership. The later two aspects will no doubt be debated but the first is pretty well described. It is there that I will concentrate my efforts and leave the others for a later time.

Availability:

We have talked about this one before. The endless repetition of the images of the burning towers and their collapse reinforces this heuristic and makes it seem as if the threat is omnipresent. It's easier for people to recall those images and fears than a picture of a twisted auto after a fatal car crash. People were repelled but could not look away. The coverage provided a sense of intimacy that made people feel as if they were in the heat of the calamity. This sense of vulnerability resulted in a feeling that everyone was at risk – even in small towns that I am sure OBL and company would miss on a geography test.

Neglect of Probability:

The facts speak for themselves. Terrorists appear to be a lot less of a threat to your survival than 'Joe six-pack behind the wheel'. Factual risk assessment proves this point for now. People have a very poor appreciation of probability and tend to believe that vivid or negative events occur at a much higher rate than is true. Ironically the number of people actually at risk from an event or decision seems to have a minimal affect on decision weight (called scope neglect). This may help explain why we fuss about terrorists and ignore drunk drivers.

Causality and Hindsight Bias:

How many times have we heard this; “There have been no terrorist attacks in this country since 9/11; therefore, our security efforts are worth the cost.” This is a classic logic failure based upon an assumption which may or may not be true. Remember that the claim could have been made that 'since the WTC bombing of 1993 our security efforts have protected America' right up to 8:46 am EST, September 11, 2001. The point of this is not to bash the Bush administration but to point out that the explanation as to why we haven't been attacked yet again is multi-factorial and causality has not been established. Prudence demands that all possible explanations be explored including the unholy patience of this enemy. What are the dangers of misplaced causality? As it turns out they may be huge.

Let's examine another vicarious moment in American history - The Challenger explosion and the destruction of the Columbia. Lots of school kids got to watch the Challenger explode, heard possibly the greatest understatement in history (the NASA spokesperson saying 'obviously a major malfunction' as bits of the shuttle blasted in all directions), and saw the bits fall to the sea. The recriminations flew for months and included Richard Feynman's classic o-ring dunking and the dull thud his sample o-ring made on the floor after a few moments in cold water (Rogers et. al. 1986.). The o-rings were fixed and the shuttle went back into space. So what was the problem with that? Hindsight bias was strongly at work. Everyone 'knew' that NASA had been lazy or negligent in not fixing the o-rings before the fatal flight. In reality that is unfair. UNFAIR! Seven astronauts died how can that be unfair? Because of the effects of hindsight bias. The space shuttle is an engineering marvel. It also has the largest number of single point failure modes (single problem or malfunction leading to mission loss) of any machine in existence. Prior to Challenger exploding, o-ring problems were only one of several possible mission loss risk factors. Without the benefit of hindsight, improving the safety of the shuttle would have required addressing ALL of the risks of equal gravity – something that NASA had expressed to Congress and the administration hoping for some funds. But absent exploding shuttles it was not a national priority at the time.

The o-ring problem may have been solved but another single point failure mode killed Columbia leading to another patch-work fix and the ultimate quiet decision to terminate the shuttle program.

The moral of the story; hindsight bias can affect future decisions even in cases where causality is determined for a specific instance (we know the o-ring killed Challenger but concentrating efforts to fix that problem did not save Columbia). It does this by preventing people from a thorough risk assessment and accounting for the true probability and predictability of similar risks. The fact that something happens does not imply that it was reasonably predictable based upon pre-disaster models – the assumption of increased predictability of past events is another classic cognitive bias (one that greatly complicates civil liability law). One type of attack may have been thwarted by these airline security measures but equating that with improved overall security is false as the Columbia loss demonstrates. How much of a patchwork solution is making you undress for airline security? Hard to tell, but it is interesting that the cargo stored in the hold of the airliner (whose owners required you to roll onto your back and submit before boarding) is still not screened...

Complicating all these discussions of hindsight and causality is the next topic: the risk and effect of exceptionally rare but extremely catastrophic events, or Black Swans.

Black Swans:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb characterized this bias in his book 'The Black Swan'. In it he discusses the difficulty of dealing with risk assessments in circumstances where the majority of negative risk comes from one extreme case – i.e. a black swan. Was 9/11 a black swan? Of course it was. The problem is how likely are and how do you prevent future such events and will there nature necessarily be predictable from assessments of previous events. Placing too much emphasis on the value of hindsight is dangerous. Fischhoff (1982) described this issue well:
"When we attempt to understand past events, we implicitly test the hypotheses or rules we use both to interpret and to anticipate the world around us. If, in hindsight, we systematically underestimate the surprises that the past held and holds for us, we are subjecting those hypotheses to inordinately weak tests and, presumably, finding little reason to change them."
In other words we assume that future events will look much like past ones. We assume that we can easily predict them so pay little attention to the possibility of similar but nonidentical events making it much harder to predict them while living under a false sense of security.

In a wonderful paper on cognitive bias in global risk assessment in 2006, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote:
“After September 11th, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prohibited box-cutters on airplanes. The hindsight bias rendered the event too predictable in retrospect, permitting the angry victims to find it the result of 'negligence' - such as intelligence agencies' failure to distinguish warnings of Al Qaeda activity amid a thousand other warnings. We learned not to allow hijacked planes to overfly our cities. We did not learn the lesson: "Black Swans occur; do what you can to prepare for the unanticipated." “
At this point you may be wondering which side of the fence I am on. Am I arguing for restraint in concerns regarding terrorism because of the obvious tendency to neglect the true probability of genuine risks such as drunk drivers? Or am I saying that we need to be even more vigilant to major catastrophes because of the unrecognized risk of 'Black Swan' events such as the WTC attack? In fact I support both but not in the way we have thus far approached the problems. The truth is this. Terrorism is a real threat but it should be incorporated into our assessment and response to a wide range of dangers we face in life. We need a measured response to terrorism in light of the fact that, thus far, the risk is less than many common dangers. By the same token we need to prepare, as Yudkowsky suggested, for the the real possibility of terrorist Black Swan events by preparing as best we can for the unexpected. What does that mean. First of all we are unlikely to be able to prevent all such attacks by a resourceful enemy. We should not worry so much about the fact that it will happen again and go on with life as best we can with a slight up tic in daily risk. We need to concentrate not on how they might attack us but rather on assessing where such attacks would be most devastating then take steps to mitigate those risks. We cannot be everywhere at once. We need to concentrate on those areas where the overall risk to the nation as a whole is greatest. What will be hard is that if we are honest in this assessment we will probably find out that limited loss of life situations are less of a threat than certain infrastructure attacks that could impact millions.

We need to make our judgments based not upon irrational fear and emotion but on careful deliberation. True risk assessment and assumption will make us better able to counter those whose reactionary response is to throw the baby out with the bath water and curtail liberties unnecessarily. Our response should be “true patriots carefully assess the risks and act as if they have a spine!” Or “true patriots do not cower in the presence of false risks”. True patriots are not afraid to analyze the nature and rationality of their fears and accordingly act as adults.

These are tough calls and preparing in this way ideally will be a thankless job. As Taleb notes in his book:
“It is difficult to motivate people in the prevention of Black Swans... Prevention is not easily perceived, measured, or rewarded; it is generally a silent and thankless activity. Just consider that a costly measure is taken to stave off such an event. One can easily compute the costs while the results are hard to determine. How can one tell its effectiveness, whether the measure was successful or if it just coincided with no particular accident? ... Job performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, but may be biased in favor of the observed "acts of heroism". History books do not account for heroic preventive measures. “
Realizing how we can be manipulated and deceived is the first step in correcting the problem. In closing I will avail myself of one of the four quotes that hang in my office: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (FDR's 1rst inaugural – talk about leadership in a crisis). 9/11 didn't change everything – our response and continued obsession with it did. And if that is true, and if as Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar, “the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves”, then we can do something to banish this pernicious fear that continues to eat away at everything we hold dear.

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A Word of Caution. Cognitive biases are a very real part of human decision-making and can be quite deleterious. But like all things they need to be viewed in moderation and we should realize that although human decision bias is present in almost all decisions, its relative importance to the final outcome and its impact on decisions varies from case to case. Some decisions are complex and nuanced and as such, are vulnerable to cognitive bias – others are straight forward or involve such a preponderance of evidence that bias is a trivial component. Learning the difference is critical.

10.24.2008

In order to keep my head from exploding, 1.1


Ok, I'm just warning you that this may become a fairly regular feature if I am to prevent my head from exploding. Last night I happened upon a website called 'Accuracyingenesis'. One of the features of this site was a very detailed presentation of the 'science' behind Noah's flood including a couple of theories(?) as to how it happened. The words sort of sounded like science (at least to someone with no appreciation for it) but they were only sprinkled around as garnish for what appeared to be an enormous steaming pile of, well, illogical conclusions. I know - insomnia stinks. Too bad Clif isn't around to check my numbers... But thanks to GHE for reminding me to multiply by 4/3 for the volume of a sphere (DOOH!)

One of these hypotheses put forward was that the earth was struck by a number of comets which delivered the requisite water to earth, hence the flood. YGFKM! I had a hard time getting back to sleep knowing that I lived in a country where people can propagate this kind of thing (and worse, be believed!) so I started to work out a some calculations based upon fairly simple (albeit large numbers) math and high school science. So how big would the SNoah ball have to be?

Ok then. The Bible claims that the entire earth was covered in water. So how much water is that? A simple approximation can be calculated .

Assuming the world is only 6000 or so years old then it stands to reason that Mount Everest was pretty much as we find it today, give or take. To cover all the land on earth requires enough water to raise sea level another 8848 meters (height of Everest). Should we throw in 3 extra meters just to prevent anyone from standing on their tippy toes? You have to be sure everyone drowns don't we? Naw, that variable will get swallowed in significant digit rounding errors anyway.

Next, we need to calculate the volume of the earth at sea level. Now I will use the diameter at the poles not the equator. I know what you are thinking – that underestimates the volume a bit because the earth is bulged at the equator. Have no fear. I chose the smaller number because then I can discount the variable volume caused by topography and still have a conservative estimate.
  • Diameter of the earth at the poles ~ 12,715.43 km so the radius ~ 6378 km.
  • The volume of a sphere is 4/3 (thanks GHE for the reminder!) Pi(r3) or in this case 3.14159 (6378)3 ~ 1,086,780,374,578 cubic km. This number will be subtracted from the volume of an earth-sized body covered by an additional 8.8 km of water to determine how much water has to be delivered by this comet(s).
  • Add 8.8 to 6378 and we get ~ 6387 km for a volume of 1,091,387,539,146 cubic km.
Eliminating the volume of the earth pre-flood, we end up with 4,607,164,568 cubic km of water required. DOOH! That seems like a lot of water. So let's put it into some perspective. Dividing this number by 3/4Pi and then taking the cube root you end up with a blob of water roughly 2064 km in diameter or fairly close to the diameter of Pluto (2274 km). That' IS a lot of water! Of course since it would be a ball of ice the diameter would be even greater. All right – there are things that big out there in the Kupfer Belt and Ort cloud so I guess one of them could strike the earth.

But let's see how much protection an ark would need to survive such a thing. Now I know you are saying 'DUDE – the Bible says it rained 40 days and 40 nights so it all didn't have to hit all at once' (a point they make in that website). True, but the amount of total energy delivered stays the same no matter how many individual packets are involved. To be generous let's divide this blob into 80 parts – one for each night and day...

That means that twice a day 57,589,557 cubic km of water struck the earth.

But let's just use the total to make some estimates. To this point the faithful can say that 'yeah, that could have happened'. Maybe. But now we need to calculate what WOULD have been the result of such a collision(s).

There's this little problem with energy conservation that they seem to have ignored... We have to account for the energy transferred to the earth and its atmosphere by way of such a collision.

HOW MUCH ENERGY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT!

  • Kinetic energy is determined by 1/2mv2 where m=mass and v=velocity for a point object with no rotational energy. (Let's keep it somewhat simple and ignore rotational forces for now.)
  • A cometary body striking the earth is usually given a velocity around 25 kps (kilometers per SECOND!)

The mass of water is 1000 kg/cubic m. There are 1,000,000,000 cubic meters in a cubic km so we have 1,000,000,000,000 kg of water / cubic km. (see where we are going with this yet?) Multiply this by the amount of water we determined was needed and what do you get?
4.61x10 21st power! kg of water.

That results in 1.44x10 30th power Joules of kinetic energy! That is roughly how much energy would be absorbed by the earth to stop a 2000+km diameter ball of ice. And it has to be to stop it or else the water doesn't fall to earth.

That seems like a lot of energy to get rid of – particularly when you consider that 3.34×10 31st J is how much the sun produces each day and 5.5×10 24th J is how much total solar energy strikes the earth each year! And that the total energy delivered to the earth by the asteroid at the end of the Cretaceous period was at least 10 million times less... I don't care how many cubits the ark was I doubt a wooden boat could weather that storm...

I did these calculations at night so there could be some errors but I think it's pretty close - now at least ;).

That isn't the end of our problems - how do you mop up all that extra water when you are sure everyone is dead? AHA! Tricked ya because all that energy would have flashed the water to steam and exploded out into space leaving a surface of molten rock! Oh, that might not bode well for poor old Noah and clan...

10.23.2008

McCain's Healthcare Plan: looking under the hood

With less than 2 weeks before the general election and with McCain and the GOP flinging more feces than a hundred chimps on PCP, it seems like a good idea to look at some of the proposals these family values people are promoting. Top on a lot of people's agenda is healthcare and McCain has been out stumping for his plan. Back in April Business Week published this glowing article and the plan remains essentially untouched.

“The last of the three remaining Presidential candidates to unveil a detailed health proposal, McCain's is also the least radical. He is against mandates, instead proposing universal coverage would emerge through the use of tax credits and a more competitive insurance marketplace. McCain wants to do away with the tax exemption on employer-provided insurance. Instead, he would give a $2,500 annual tax credit to individuals, and $5,000 to families, to purchase their own coverage.

McCain's plan is meant to encourage individuals to purchase their insurance and free companies from the heavy cost of providing coverage. His theory is that employees would take their tax credit and flock to the open market, where they could shop around for the plan that best meets their needs. Insurance companies would have to become more competitive to win their business.”
Wow – so a guy who attacks Obama for being a socialist proposes to fix health care costs by redistributing tax exemptions for healthcare from higher to lower income workers. Who'd have thought?

McCain proposes to reform healthcare through the use of a refundable tax credit which is essentially the same for all levels of income. Since healthcare benefits are no longer tax exempt you would have to declare the value of your benefits, then write the total check to the IRS. In theory this means that the taxpayer could get back more money than they put in but if you go to his website it should be noted that this tax credit never goes to the taxpayer but instead goes to the insurance company of your choice. From MCain's website comes this:
“the credit goes to the insurance company that the American family chooses to get coverage from, anywhere in the nation. The power of choice lies with the family – not government bureaucrats or insurance companies.

Putting Families In Charge: Under the McCain Plan American families will not only decide where the tax credit should be directed for their coverage needs but any additional money left over after purchasing coverage will be controlled by the family in a portable health savings account.”
Well, sorry John but you just said that government bureaucrats will graciously send the money to the insurance company of my choice, hmmm. I guess not many visitors to your site actually read it... YOU DON”T GET TO KEEP THE MONEY!!! He's right – you are in control – if you can convince an insurance company to cover you and afford the price tag.

Now keep in mind that according to the Kaiser Family Foundation the amount payed by the combination of employer and employee for health coverage was $4,479 for a single person and $12,106 per family in 2007 which means that for many people the tax credit will not be enough to actually pay for coverage and they don't have an employer who ponies up part of the bill. This is of course assuming you can get coverage in the first place which is an issue that McCain's plan defers until after he “works with the states to set up some sort of plan to create risk pools for the uninsurable”. Also directly from his website:

“ John McCain believes that no American should be denied access to quality and affordable coverage simply because of a pre-existing condition. As President, John McCain will work with governors to develop a best practice model that states can follow – a Guaranteed Access Plan or GAP – that would reflect the best experience of the states to ensure these patients have access to health coverage. There would be reasonable limits on premiums, and assistance would be available for Americans below a certain income level.”
So in other words he'll get back to us on this one if he is elected... Thus far all his proposals in this area fall far short of what is needed to cover these costs.

McCain claimed in a speech in Tampa that people with employer-sponsored policies could keep them and that their policies "would be largely untouched and unchanged." The message here is that for the majority of Americans life would go on as usual. But would it? Ok let's look at this from the perspective of employers whose biggest worry is ever rising healthcare costs. The Republicans hand them an early Christmas present that eliminates the tax credit for healthcare coverage which was the original incentive to provide coverage in the first place – employees got a nontaxable benefit in place of a higher taxable income. Now why wouldn't the employers go to their workers and say 'Hey we would be paying $7000 for the rest of your coverage so we'll just give you $8500 and call it even – you go get the coverage on the open market.” Why not? Hey then when coverage goes up and up the employer no longer shoulders the costs, HR gets easier – WOOOHOOO! Keep in mind that now 61 percent of the non-elderly population in the U.S. had insurance through their jobs (2006 Kaiser Family Foundation). What will happen to collective bargaining or risk pooling if this number changes?

And what about that competition on the open market. Yeah buddy. I'm sure all those companies are going to be competing for all those overweight smoking diabetics who had group plans. And don't sweat the fact that coverage and cost vary from region to region and that you are now part of a risk pool of one... For the healthy people, insures will line up to give them coverage that would cost below the rebate line and channel the rest into those insurance-run healthcare accounts. Insurers will love those accounts as they lower their future risk. So young healthy people will have less incentive to be part of larger risk pools making the remaining higher risk people more of a burden to the employer. Until they decide to stop paying any of it which is what most market analysts predict.

Next he would eliminate restrictions that states have enacted so that insurance companies could more easily cross state lines to provide coverage. Sounds good until you realize that most of those pesky road blocks that states have erected prevent insurers from cherry picking clients and help spread the risk over the general population. You have to love the GOP's dogged support of state's rights unless a supporter sees a dollar across state lines...

So in essence this is just a rehash of what W wanted to do before. Privatize! Use the power of free enterprise to solve the problem that free enterprise created in the first place. I don't know about you but after watching the DOW fall faster than a soufflĂ©' in a percussion section, my confidence in free enterprise is a bit shaky. Sounds like a sound policy to me, but hey what do I know – I'm voting for the other guy...

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Addendum because GHE is correct: If anyone wants to post a dissenting opinion or a critique of the Obama plan, let me know. I will promise to post it.

10.20.2008

Cause, Effect, Coincidence, Association and Chicanery: part 1

Why do people fall for utter nonsense? Marketeers, psychics, con artists, politicians, quacks, pundits, mystics – the list seems endless of people who essentially make their living by lying through their teeth to everyone else. And it's not as if they are particularly crafty about it or that their lies are that sophisticated. There aren't even very sneaky about it. Most, if not all, of the ridiculous claims made by these people can easily be discounted by one or two relatively simple follow-up questions or straight forward logic. Why then are they still so successful at manipulating people? How can a group of our leaders go so far as to ridicule 'the reality-based community' (who prefer to make decisions in a somewhat logical manner) knowing full well that a majority won't know the difference or at least not care enough to be concerned? A corollary question is why people are immune to some of these cons but vulnerable to others? Why can one person see through the absurdity of an ancient mythology and still fall for the slight of hand of a psychic con artist? Since both are selling the same logic-free wares why accept one and reject the other? How do we compartmentalize logic in one arena and throw it away we read a fortune cookie? Why can our species articulate splendid methods of deductive and logical reasoning and yet rarely implement them in day to day practice.

Simple; humans make decisions using heuristic methods that are highly vulnerable to cognitive biases. A thorough assessment of our biases will take a number of installments but a discussion of 'Availability Heuristics' is a good place to start.

What are Heuristics and Availability Heuristics? Heuristics are “strategies using readily accessible, though loosely applicable, information to control problem-solving in human beings and machines” (Pearl, 1983) . They are remembered patterns that can be used to make educated guesses or invoke 'common sense' in decision-making. Availability heuristics are a form of well studied cognitive bias where greatest decision-making weight is applied to the most easily remembered pattern or heuristic rather than the most precise or accurate ones which may be less easily recalled. And that is a bit of a problem because heuristics are often generated through experiences that are colored by whatever circumstances surround the event which triggers them. Why is that such a problem? Because we incorporate coincident associations into these pearls of wisdom which will affect future decisions regardless of whether true causality exists or not. Causality (or true cause and effect linkage from one event to another) is not something that bothered our ancestors trying to avoid perils. Better for them was to recall vivid patterns of information that they 'associated' with perilous circumstances regardless of causality. The price of over calling peril was usually not that great, while the cost of under-triage could be death. This may explain our tendency to read much more into simple coincidences (to the great delight of con artists) than is warranted by reality. All this of course presupposes that our minds are an ad hoc collection of bits and pieces of re-purposed animal behaviors rather than unique souls endowed by a higher being. Holy texts may argue the latter but behavioral studies overwhelmingly support the former.

It is a fact that for every incidence of true causality, there are countless coincident events whose only real association is created, and subsequently faithfully defended in our minds. The human mind is loathe to tolerate uncertainty (another cognitive bias) and readily substitutes coincident events into heuristics and applies them with the same zeal whether they contain any fragments of cause and effect or not. As time goes on we stop trying to use the heuristic to predict future events and begin to search for situations which conform to the circumstances defined by the heuristic. This reinforces its power over our thoughts, whether real or imagined, but also destroys any true predictive value that might have been associated with it in the first place (yes, that last paragraph is essentially my personal definition of religion...). Such is the associative power of available heuristics that almost nothing can change their perceived power shy of death or significant personal cost.

How do Heuristics and Availability play out in real world examples? As it turns out nature provides numerous opportunities to study these phenomena. One of the wonderful examples of evolutionary convergence is mimicry – a species which evolves characteristics that confer survival advantage presumably through similarities to recognizably dangerous species. Theoretically these similarities confer at least some of their advantage through reduced predation. But for this to be the case at least 3 things must be true: 1) predators must depend upon heuristics in prey selection ; 2) these heuristics must be subject to availability bias; and 3) the mimic must have evolved these characteristics after the dangerous species being imitated. Let's defer the discussion of the third criteria for now.

The case of the coral snake and its presumptive mimic the scarlet king snake is a great example of heuristics and availability in action in nature. The coral snake is North America's cobra cousin possessing powerful neurotoxic venom and sporting a jaunty livery of yellow black and red bands. These distinctive bands alternate 'yellow, red, yellow, black, yellow red...' and so on. The scarlet king snake also has yellow, red and black bands but these occur in the pattern of 'yellow, black, red, black, yellow...'. In other words the venomous reptile's red bands touch only yellow bands and the harmless one's red bands only touch black ones. This mimicry is clearly only an approximation to the dangerous species. If you see each side by side the differences are easy to spot (preferably through glass ...). This has lead to the heuristic of 'yellow and red and you're dead', etc.

Here's where availability comes into play. Consider 4 possible heuristics regarding these snakes: 1) avoid snakes with alternating yellow, red and black bands where the black bands are bordered in yellow; 2) yellow and red and you're dead; 3) avoid yellow, red and black stripped snakes; or 4) avoid snakes. Number '4' is clearly the simplest to remember (and probably the people's choice...) so it benefits from 'availability'. For a species that routinely eats snakes, '3' would probably be the heuristic of choice and an explanation as to why the mimicry need not be that precise since animals in nature are unlikely to pull out a book on identifying features of prey. Yeah, you may pass on an occasional meal but you live to eat another day. Choices '1 or 2' would only be of interest to herpetologists or the occasional amorous king snake.

Remember that logical assessment and deliberate consideration of options is a very recent luxury enjoyed, as far as we can tell, only by technologically advanced humans. Most decisions in nature need to be rapid and decisive if one wishes to avoid being eaten or killed. Close is generally good enough in horse shoes, hand grenades and almost all decisions in nature. (As an aside it is interesting to hypothesize that the general human aversion to snakes might be a behavioral artifact inherited from our African ancestors who more routinely encountered nasty's like the cobra, puff adder, mamba, etc. as they traveled the African plains and a general serpent aversion heuristic might have been a good strategy. With no particular survival advantage associated with a love of snakes, this trait may well have persisted. Could this be the instinctive origin of Satan as a serpent?)

Doubt the significance of availability heuristics to cognition? Try to recall the pattern difference between the coral and king snakes. Which one(s) come immediately to mind? Availability heuristics are heavily leveraged in all of our intensive training programs. How many time have you heard military trainers talk about repetitive training so that recruits will 'act instinctively' in combat. The goal of these programs is to overcome existing availability heuristics (such as self-preservation) and replace them with military useful ones. (In heuristic terms 'cowardice' might be better termed either inadequate reprogramming of availability or reversion to primary heuristics under severe stress.) Everyone in government may not believe in evolution but they surely leverage its implications to accomplish their goals... Think of the GOP strategy of creating availability heuristics like, McCain = patriot and security, while Obama = socialist, terrorist, Muslim. The persistence of such are clear examples of the power and persistence of availability heuristics to decision-making including such important topics as national leadership. Marketeers may not study neurochemistry and human evolution but they put availability to work creating all those little ditties that clog our minds and create that brand loyalty that translates to a healthy corporate bottom line.

So why should any of this be of any interest beyond behavioral psychologists and a few geeks, such as myself, working in machine intelligence research? Nothing could be more important. We are facing modern problems and complex global decision environments with cognitive processes evolved to handle snap decisions in situations where the stakes were that of individual (or small cohort) survival. Our technological advantages over predators and many historical environmental dangers reduces the need for these snap decisions. But the cost is that these same technical advantages require the application of deliberate logic approaches in order to avoid more generalized and extensive species dangers created by these technologies and we don't have time to evolve them. If we are to survive we must understand how our genes guide our cognition and create societal memes to mitigate our limitations before we make a snap decision to destroy ourselves.

10.10.2008

Why Evolution Matters at This Juncture in History

I'm not going to engage in a debate on the merits of the theory of descent with modification which forms the basis for much of our understanding of biology. Instead I am going to make a plea as to why efforts to understand and thereby address the implications of our evolution are essential if we are to survive. On the basis of biological causality we come to some pretty sobering conclusions:

  • Evolution involves descent with modification.
  • Descent with modification results from natural selection operating on mutations in a gene or new combinations of existing genes in a population over time.
  • Gene mutations affect the encoding for an existing structure or structures
  • In essence then, evolution results in re-purposing of existing structures or development of novel structures derived from existing ones that confer a reproductive survival advantage (either through displacement of existing competition or migration into new niches).

That's the problem. If human evolution is correct then our brains are the result of incremental modification of predecant brains, i.e. they are cobbled together from the bits and pieces of our ancestor's gene mutations relating to neurological development. Presumably, these changes provided a reproductive advantage based upon the selection pressures that were important at that time. If mind is a construct of the brain's basic anatomy then our cognitive functions likewise arose as a result of the same incremental changes or re-purposing of existing neural responses which were advantageous in dealing with the dangers of the period. Why is that such a problem? The rules of the game have changed. Brains evolved to handle ancient selection pressures have been dropped into a different environment all together. Our incrementally evolving brains are being asked to operate in a geometrically expanding array of complex decision environments spurred on by explosive technological development for which we were not designed and are quite ill equipped to handle. Our technology has created new selection pressures which may overwhelm our ability to adapt either through the slower 'NeoDarwinian' (genes) evolutionary path or our more rapid 'Lamarckian-like' (memes) form of cultural adaptation which is still limited by our biological design. If we continue to view our mental processes from a magical or soul-based rather than a mechanistic perspective we will be unable to study its structure or create cultural safeguards to mitigate its limitations.

Certainly such an approach would fly in the face of our typical species strategy: Stay the course – until we hit the rocks – then blame the rocks... But it may be the only way to survive.

We have a long way to go. Humans appear to have inherited rather unfortunate tendencies from our proto-human ancestors. We infer causality in cases of simple coincidence. Rarely is our first response to an event about which we are ignorant, to stop and say 'whoa, I'm going to sit down and try to figure out what I just saw in light of a logical assessment of known facts”. Instead, when confronted with the unknown, we make shit up and act accordingly. This gift is further supported by our well studied tendency to ignore negative data in our deliberations. The bar for 'successful' analysis is set pretty low when you can ignore inconvenient facts. And if we are fortunate enough to not suffer from our arbitrary confabulations, the next time we experience the same situation we feign authority to anyone who will listen. If you are bold enough you may even be able to leverage your claims into a career as a soothsayer – or its modern equivalent, a Fox pundit. Get enough people to accept your groundless conclusions and a belief structure is borne. Such structures become self-perpetuating impediments to future progress. Unfortunately hairless apes seem to be particularly open to accepting 'because I said so', as being sufficient to establish credentials.

If we approach these limitations from an evolutionary developmental perspective, it's not too hard to hypothesize why this would be. Back in our African savanna days, when groups of our ancestors were gathering food and one saw what could have been a face with centrally located eyes buried in a pattern of tall grass, logical analysis may not have been a particularly good survival strategy. Sadly (but fortunately), we are the descendants of those who ran from anything remotely looking like a face in the shadows while the budding scientists of the day may have walked over to check out their assumptions trying to determine probabilities and negative data – unfortunately only serving to improve the survival chances of the lion hiding amongst the tall grass. (Fortune may favor the bold, but natural selection favors the skittish.)

Making snap decisions on insufficient data worked really well for our species for a long time. Better to be rash, incorrect and alive than deliberate and a meal with respect to the only measure of success that natural selection considered – viable offspring. For much of human history this is how we moved forward because every now and then, the blind hog really did find and acorn, and there actually was a tidbit of causality in what was inferred. Given a few thousands of years, a body of conventional wisdom (almost always based on an erroneous foundation) was collected which worked reasonably well. There are still times when this gift of fear (as Gavin de Becker wrote) comes in handy. The wild eyed guy arguing with himself at the bus stop may rate a quick change in direction and a crossing of the street without further consideration. Unfortunately, with the advent of nuclear weapons, ICBM's, and complex geopolitical problems like global warming and interdependent economies, it ain't always a good thing to act impulsively or with your gut. But instinctive reactions may be a larger part of our inherent programming than we would care to admit. But admit it we must.

Over the next few weeks I plan to continue this thread in greater detail with examples. Next time the focus will be on human difficulties with determining causality. And how this impacts, or distorts, our world view.

10.01.2008

Prologue

I have to admit that to me, the 21st century has been a bit of a disappointment thus far. In place of the moon bases, mile high cities, and SST's we were promised growing up in the 1960's, I live in a country where a substantial portion of the population believes the earth is 6000 years old or who feels that the only part of the Constitution worth saving is the Second Amendment . Science is mistrusted and mysticism of any kind revered. I used to lament that our future looked a lot more like Blade Runner and a lot less like Star Trek with each passing day, but now even that would seem to be an improvement – at least Blade Runner was a high tech spacefaring society. We seem headed for a world that is some combination of 1984, The Crucible, and Mad Max. Eternal optimist that I am, I refuse to give up hope quite yet. This is my very tiny voice in the static of the Internet, a place of wondrous information adrift in an expansive sea of nonsense, disinformation and outright lies. America is a land rife with ignorance but while stupidity is a terminal affliction, ignorance can sometimes be cured with a little help from our friends. In this place I'm going to try and grow a kernel of debate that depends upon facts and figures and hopefully less drama. My vocation of the last 25 years has lead me deep into the realm of decision theory and cognitive bias. I am going to try and apply some of that here. So, what is this place going to try to be? Simply a place for conversations about shared problems where critical thinking and cause and effect rule. With your help at least... If this works, I'll end up learning a lot from you. I'll try to get the conversation underway, and if enough people join in, we can share the burden of presenting the premise for discussion. No opinions will be censored though I would hope that as adults we could keep the vitriol to a minimum.