Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fear of the Implication

One thing I've noticed a lot (and I noticed it quite a bit with my recent post on feminism) is that people are quick to infer certain conclusions on your behalf and then attack those conclusions. In a superficial sense, I could just write this off as a straw man argument and ignore it, but I think it bears further analysis. It seems like there is a specific drive to do this, and I'm as guilty of it as anybody.

A couple of years ago, I remember talking to someone online (let's call him Bill) and he questioned the death toll of the holocaust. I remember feeling ill at ease when he said this, even though I had never seen him express any racist or white supremacist views. In fact, it doesn't logically follow from the claim that the holocaust was less severe than reported that someone supports Nazis or is racist.

And that's the interesting thing. My brain automatically made a series of connections and produced an emotional response. I would describe the process as follows:

Bill claims the holocaust was not as bad as reported → If the holocaust was not as bad as reported, then Nazis are less evil than originally assumed → But the Nazis were evil! Why is this man trying to defend Nazis?! → I must counter his viewpoint that the Nazis aren't that evil → Defensive response.

It seems that we have automatic associations between certain viewpoints and implications about the character and beliefs of those who hold those viewpoints. Those associations are not deductively correct; that is, holocaust denial cannot be linked through a bulletproof logical proof to racism on the part of the holocaust denier.

In the case of my recent post about feminism, some people responded with claims that are directly supported by what I wrote, but they presented these claims as though they were either contradicting me or making sure I wasn't committing an error in my thinking. I believe the chain of associations, in this case, went like this:

Shawn is being critical of feminism → People critical of feminism are often misogynists and sexists → Shawn is a well-meaning guy and likely doesn't intend to be a sexist → Provide Shawn with arguments contradicting sexism and misogyny.

At least, that was often the chain of associations for those who responded respectfully. Once again, like in the holocaust example, sexism and misogyny cannot be logically deduced from the fact that I am being critical of feminism.

So why do we have this function at all? Why do we seem driven to do this automatically, and why does it take a certain amount of effort and self-awareness to not automatically commit these logical fallacies? It can't have been an accident that we do this kind of inductive, imperfect thinking regarding issues like these.

I think we have a pretty sophisticated intuition and that much of this intuition (maybe even most of it) exists so that we can function well in a social environment. Even if we're not explicitly aware of it, our subconscious automatically assumes that people with certain kinds of values and ideas are dangerous to us and our tribe, and motivates us to either act to modify those values and ideas so that the person can function better in our tribe, or to act to remove them from the tribe.

In order for this function to be evolutionarily and pragmatically useful, it does not have to be perfect. In fact, it is almost certain that an intuition that demanded solid, irrefutable proof before assuming things about other people has a distinct disadvantage to intuitions that are willing to act on less than perfect evidence. The optimal risk/reward ratio for acting on intuition no doubt lies somewhere between absolute certainty and almost certain doubt. The implications for the evolutionary development of our intuition follow necessarily.

I actually think there is nothing wrong with this function. I do think, however, that it behooves us to be aware of processes like this so that we can have a better handle on situations where it comes about. It's fine to wonder if a holocaust denier is a racist, but it's certainly helpful to be consciously aware of the fact that you don't have solid evidence yet that he is a racist.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pathological Feminism

Before I go on yet another tirade about my distaste for feminism, allow me to make something clear; I respect and appreciate women and think they should be treated fairly as autonomous individuals. It is unfortunate that the word "feminism" has become such a package deal of conflicting and unrelated concepts that one cannot criticize feminist ideology without being accused of being a sexist.

One of the primary scientific and philosophic errors of feminism is the rejection of differences between the sexes. Many feminists claim that, other than the obvious physical differences, any and all differences between men and women are the result of culture. The implication, of course, is that any inequalities that are observed must be caused by poor values regarding the sexes that persist throughout the culture.

You can usually see this referred to as "the patriarchy" or some similar phrase. The implication is that sexist values persist, and that is why you don't see very many women engineers, CEOs, etc. If only men would stop aggressively keeping women out of powerful positions, they could thrive and flourish just like men rather than be 2nd class citizens.

The fundamental premise, however, is wrong. There are myriad differences between men and women psychologically as well as in the physiology of the brain. Study after study have shown differences in how men and women handle different types of thinking, how they observe the world (particularly, attention to color), and what they find important. To claim that there are no differences "under the hood", so to speak, is to deny the available empirical evidence.

The situation becomes even more confusing when cultures take the natural differences between men and women and create caricatures and norms out of them. "Men are less likely to express sadness openly," becomes "Men never cry and don't ever let anyone see you do it." "Women are often happiest when caring for a family," becomes "Women have no business doing anything but popping out babies." And so on.

The issues feminists bring up are often real issues in need of being addressed, but their approach is so skewed that the solutions often end up being harmful. In particular, the belief that all sex differences are cultural leads to a type of social engineering in which women should be courted into certain professions and lifestyles. If there are far more men than women employed as computer programmers, it must be (from the feminist view) that we are doing something to make girls not like computer programming.

Blame is then put on men, as a group, for harming women. Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid such obvious sexism, the blame is put on some vague "patriarchy" rather than men directly, but the implication is basically the same. There's a reason the word being used is patriarchy rather than matriarchy; patriarchy means rule by men. Men are the ones in control and harming people.

Next, the environment that girls grow up in is analyzed through the feminist lens. Everything is interpreted as being evidence that girls are being molded, through a sort of patriarchal cultural Skinner box, into being caricatures of women rather than real individuals. For example, why do people buy Legos for their boys but dolls for their girls? Why do advertising companies try to sell dolls to girls? Sexism is clearly at work.

Let's back up a bit here. The implication, in this specific instance, is that advertisers decide what their customers should want, and then force it down their throat. A cursory study of the marketing department of any major business would reveal that this has cause and effect completely reversed. Marketing departments work tirelessly to produce and sell products that consumers want. In other words, they sell dolls to girls because girls buy dolls, not vice versa. If they could really sell twice as many dolls by targeting boys too, do you really think they wouldn't?

That's just one example. The point is that the feminist perspective tends to remove basic common sense explanations for things in order to justify patriarchal oppression. More often than not, the solution becomes some kind of social engineering experiment. If you believe that women are molded into weak oppressed victims by their environment, then properly tweaking that environment can produce feminist ├╝bermensch.

What drives this sort of pathological thinking? I used to believe that it was simply well-intentioned people with bad information and perspectives. Sometimes, that is still the case. When you get to the more extreme cases, though, I think you'll find a persistent psychology of victimhood.

One unfortunate fact is that the inferior physical strength of women does make it easier for men to physically abuse women than vice versa. Tragically, many girls are abused physically and sexually by their fathers. Even in less extreme cases, they might be yelled at or otherwise intimidated by their fathers or other men in their life.

Any victim of abuse will, if they don't completely internalize the abuse, end up feeling like a victim. This is a healthy response that is a necessary step towards coming to terms with the abuse. The problem occurs when people are stuck in this step and then project that abuse externally onto others.

For example, say a girl is sexually abused by her step dad during her childhood. At first, she internalizes it. She feels immense shame and has a deeply held emotional belief that she deserved her abuse. The most tragic cases are girls that never leave this stage and live their whole lives in this defeated, miserable state.

Sometimes, however, the girl will have developed enough self-respect to recognize that she was, in fact, abused and did not deserve to be hurt. However, she does not have the necessary emotional support to deal with this fact in a healthy manner. In order to protect herself from the feelings of being powerless and hurt by her victimizer, she internalizes that she is a victim. It becomes, deep down, how she views her relationship with the world at large. This is the seed of feminism, at least in the modern sense of the term.

Essentially, "My dad abused me," becomes "Men in general are abusive and women are constantly being abused by them." This projection of personal abuse onto the outside world (which is, by no means, exclusive to women or feminists) is a means of coping with difficult and painful emotions that result from abuse.

One thing I think I can say with confidence is that, the more extreme the feminist, the more extreme the abuse. Since this projection is essentially an escape to avoid a painful coming-to-terms with abuse, more extreme projection is driven by more extreme fear, and more extreme fear is driven by more extreme emotional pain, which is itself driven by more extreme abuse.

One tragic consequence of all of this is that boys are now being abused by feminism. Feminism justifies a sort of original sin in men, and boys are taught this from a very young age.

Imagine a 9 year old boy with a single mom. He is playing with some toys while his mom is on the phone. He hears her say "...and he didn't even call me the next day! Seriously, all men are scum!"

An adult might dismiss this as misandry and move on. But this is a child, and the person demonizing men is his mother. He likely doesn't have enough of a sense of our culture to interpret statements like that in the way you and I would. Continued exposure to this sort of stimuli (from parents, teachers, etc.) will cause the boy to internalize his status as an abuser whose very masculinity translates to hurting others.

A boy that grows up in this way is going to readily accept the claims of feminists. They play right into his own sense of guilt for being a man. This, I think, is why some men find feminism appealing, or at least feel the need to pay lip service to it. It is a sort of atonement for what they perceive as a fundamental guilt or original sin.

To wrap this up, let me just say this; the best thing we can do is accept that men and women are different, and that individuals are different, and to allow people to flourish in whatever way they can. Imposing roles onto children is harmful, whether the role being imposed is some sexist caricature, some feminist ├╝bermensch role, or the role of being a victim/victimizer. Better to let people be what they want to be and not worry about whether or not we have enough female engineers and male nurses.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Aphorisms / Random Thoughts Part 1

If you focus hard enough, every aspect of your experience can feel separate from yourself. Everything including thoughts, feelings, impulses, what you see, what you hear, etc. If that is the case, what is the self that connects all these things? It must be that thing that binds these experiences together, so that your feeling of fear can affect your impulses, which can affect what you see, etc.

It seems that the human body is experienced very much like a large computer network, and we are in the unique and bizarre state of being the system administrator and ever component of the network at the same time. Not everything meshes together nicely; we're not so much one person as many, but we're also not completely many either. Somehow we're in between one and many, in between Parmenides and Heraclitus.

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman

We often love our sadness. It is though by grasping and clinging to it, the experiences that created our sadness can be made sensible.

The desire for power and control is natural. The man who does not seek power already feels powerful. Nobody feels weak and acts weak without cultivating a power hungry soul.

It is a testament to the goodwill innate to human nature that we are best at killing other humans after convincing ourselves that they aren't really human.

Life is proof that entropy is a long term, not a short term, phenomenon. Death is proof that entropy always wins in the end.

We are at our happiest when the various parts of ourselves are harmonious with one another. Happiness is the smoothness of functioning of the human organism.

Need is a funny word. We don't really need anything, not even to live. The universe will keep going without us. We want to live. Anyone who appeals to their needs is, fundamentally, appealing to their desires.

If I had a God, it would be me.

Violence is as natural to human beings as cooperation. The world has never existed in a state of purely one or the other.

It says a lot of good about a man's view of himself when he sees an enormous mountain and wishes to place himself at the top of it, above it.

I'll concede that men are the equal of ants when ants are crawling on the moon of their own volition.

If someone made a pill that would make whoever took it as muscular as a bodybuilder with no side effects, many of us would feel guilty for taking it.

No amount of evidence will convince someone who wants his opinion to be true for reasons other than consonance with the evidence.

Speaking to the hearts and minds of those who want to listen will do a thousand times more to change the future than voting.

The safest place during any natural disaster is "somewhere else."

You don't need to romanticize the past in order to come to grips with the fact that we have problems in the present. Things can be better than they were while still not being as good as we'd like them to be.

The hardest answer to accept, regarding whether success is the result of hard work or luck, is that it can result from either but neither guarantees it.

Negative rights are positive rights. Everything expressed as a right is a demand on my behavior, whether that demand be addition to or subtraction from that behavior.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Proper Role of Evolution in Philosophy

(Note: Throughout this post, I will be using the term evolution to refer to the evolution of animals and man through natural selection, and the phrase "theory of evolution" to refer to modern biology's conception of evolution, including gene theory.)

It would be difficult to overstate the influence that the theory of evolution has had on my thinking and philosophical outlook. It forms, in many ways, the core of my philosophical anthropology, my epistemology, and my ethics. It is a brilliant example of how a solid scientific theory can have tremendous philosophical implications (a fact that no doubt frustrates many ivory tower philosophers who see themselves as above the messy, empirical world).

That being said, I think it is also easy to misapply the theory of evolution, so I think it is important to clarify its proper use in philosophy and general thinking. There is a crucial error that many thinkers commit that bears some similarity to the famous "is-ought" gap in the field of ethics. The fallacy can be stated, in its simplest and most consistent terms, as follows:

The good is that which we have adapted for through natural selection.

Now, on its face, this claim is easy to refute.  Few would argue that we would be better off without modern conveniences in general. Modern dentistry is a brilliant example of something we clearly haven't adapted to through a process of natural selection but is very, very good; until its invention, death by tooth decay was surprisingly common.

Few people make the claim so boldly and consistently; the error is often committed in a more subtle fashion and in specific contexts rather than in general. Here is an example you might actually see:

Eating grains and drinking cow's milk is bad for you because we didn't evolve to eat and drink those things.

Now, it might actually be true that eating grains and drinking cow's milk is bad for you (I'm not a nutritionist), but the truth value of that claim is not contingent on whether or not we evolved for it. As stated above, many things are very good for us even though we didn't evolve for them at all.

Evolution can still provide crucial insights into diet, however. The key is to not crudely assume that the diet of our tribal ancestors is the most optimal diet for human beings today. Rather, we should use our knowledge of evolution and genetics as one source of knowledge (out of many) to gain insight into the optimal diet. Empirical evidence is another crucial and important source of knowledge on such matters.

In other words, evolution should inform our conclusions, but it should not define them.

Another crucial thing to keep in mind, which is often forgotten by those quick to use evolution to defend certain philosophical perspectives or lifestyle choices, is that evolution didn't just stop 50,000 years ago when we were all hunter-gatherers in the savanna of Africa. The relatively strong correlation between skin color and the amount of sunlight in a given region is a perfect example of how natural selection continued to play a role as human beings migrated to different parts of the world.

While we are no doubt very close to the human beings of 50,000 years ago genetically, it should be noted that we are not identical, and the changes in lifestyle from hunter-gatherer tribes to agricultural and urban environments are going to be the very environmental changes that would affect natural selection. Once people began to live in cities, for example, the genes best capable of spreading in a city environment are, of course, going to be the ones that spread.

One interesting example of how this has affected diet is lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is much higher in populations that, traditionally, did not drink animal milk or eat dairy products. It is relatively rare, by comparison, in European populations, where cows were widespread as a source of meat and milk. Someone may actually be predisposed to being able to gain nutritional benefits from cow's milk even though his tribal, hunter-gatherer ancestors never drank cow's milk. This is a perfect example of how someone might be adapted to his environment in ways we might not expect using tribal ancestors as our standard. Evolution didn't stop 50,000 years ago.

Evolution is driven by an invisible hand, very similar to the one that drives free market economics. There is no actual hand, of course, but it is a metaphor for how coherent, functional systems form with no top down authority planning for them to be that way. Anyone skilled in free market economics will tell you that, while we can make reasonable guesses about why the market is the way it is, there are just too many variables to know for sure.

Evolution is the same way. We can infer various things about why we have certain traits (such as opposable thumbs), but we can't know for sure without substantial research. Often, research yields surprising conclusions; many bodily organs have functions that were completely unknown until modern medical research.

This is important to bear in mind when drawing inferences using evolution. I might assume that our feet evolved to operate a certain way (say, to chase down boars in the grass of the savanna) and therefore conclude that running barefoot in grass is the best way to get exercise, but my inference could be wrong. What if it turned out that humans rarely ran, and the majority of their time on their feet was spent standing or walking, and that even the most primitive humans had some kind of crude footwear? Running through the grass barefoot might, in this instance, be something that actually puts my body under stress it was not built for.

To wrap this up, my point is this; evolution is a tremendously useful tool for understanding how we are the way we are, and can provide amazing insights into how to live a better life. But it is not the only tool for doing so, and it's important that we integrate all of the data we have available before drawing hasty conclusions.