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Recently I came across a striking quote from Tolstoy, “Religion is a philosophy which can be understood by anyone.” I think I would get rid of the “a”, and just say “Religion is philosophy which can be understood by anyone.” And it’s possible that since the original is in Russian, that this second version might be closer to Tolstoy’s actual intent. Though, in any case, it was actually the second half: “can be understood by anyone” which really struck me, given that it’s a point I’ve made myself on occasion. There are in fact a lot of philosophies out there, and some of them are pretty good, but not all of them can be understood by anyone. When I have made this point previously, I used rationality as an example. This is a philosophy I have significant respect for. But which, I argued, can only be understood and adopted by a select few, and this significantly diminishes its utility, and the utility of other, similarly arcane philosophies.
To put it in more concrete terms, let’s imagine that in a pre-philosophical Hobbesian war of all against all, that if you have 10,000 people that they will commit 100 murders. To combat this you come up with two philosophies: philosophy A which can be understood by 10% of people and philosophy B which can be understood by 90% of people. Philosophy A is 100% successful at stopping its adherents from murdering while philosophy B is only 50% successful. If we assume, for the sake of our example that you can only adopt one philosophy or the other then philosophy B is objectively better since it will reduce the murder rate to 55, while philosophy A will only reduce it to 90.
We might wish for more people to adopt philosophy A. You might try to make philosophy A easier to understand. But in the end, ease of understanding and adoption turns out to be just as important as how effective the philosophy is at preventing murder. Now, of course, this example is vastly over-simplified. For one, we are not restricted to choosing only one philosophy, we could have the 10% who understand it, follow philosophy A and another 80% follow philosophy B, leaving 10% who can’t understand either, which gives us a murder rate of 50. Which is better, but observe that it’s not that much better than the pure philosophy B approach of 55.
There are obviously many other oversimplifications inherent in this illustration. For example the idea that the philosophies can be implemented independently. That we can force people to adopt the best philosophy they can understand as if by fiat. When in reality philosophies end up in competition. Also simplifying things around the issue of murder, when in reality we expect our moral philosophies to lessen all manner of crimes. Conceivably a philosophy could be great at preventing murder while being bad at preventing, say, slavery. But despite all of this I would argue that the point it makes about understanding and adoption is both valid and critical. And further that, because of the simplicity of the example, we may in fact be understating the importance of actual adoption.
If we make the illustration more concrete and assume for the moment that philosophy A is atheistic rationality, while philosophy B is generic Christianity, then there appears to be very little evidence that atheistic rationality is twice as good at preventing murders. (The 100% success rate vs. the 50% rate in the illustration.) In fact there is considerable evidence, depending on how closely you want to tie people like Stalin and Mao to that philosophy, that it is considerably worse. That particular argument is not one I want to have right now, but I think, at a minimum it calls into question any argument that it’s better. In fact I would go further and argue that it’s unlikely we’re going to invent something that’s markedly better than religion at preventing all of the things which are widely accepted as crimes. Which means that ease of understanding, or as Tolstoy says, “a philosophy which can be understood by anyone” is the most critical feature. Which is why religion is so important.
Now, if, as in the illustration, two philosophies could exist comfortably side by side, and both were equally effective, than we might not care. But as I said, in reality there appears to be unavoidable competition between philosophies. For example, it would be hard to argue that atheistic rationality hasn’t significantly eroded the adoption level of organized religion. If it had replaced it with something equally effective that would be one thing, but it’s not clear that it has. Once again this is not an argument I want to have right now, rather I just want to point out that it may be difficult to have multiple competing philosophies all operating in the same space.
The final point I brought up related to how well a given philosophy deals with all possible examples of immorality, not merely one extreme example, like murder. And I think it’s in this space that those opposed to traditional religion would lodge their strongest objections. Even if most philosophies are roughly equal at preventing murder and theft. They would argue that traditional religion is much worse at protecting things like LGBT rights, or a woman’s right to choose. I bring this up to be fair to the people making these arguments. They are good arguments. But they are once again arguments I don’t want to have right now (though I believe I’ve addressed them at length elsewhere.) The point of this post is to discuss how important ease of adoption is when judging the value of a philosophy. (Also, I would point out as something of a parting shot that I think most of the issues where current philosophies are perceived as doing better than traditional religion end up being more complicated than it’s advocates claim.)
Everything I have discussed so far is partially a long-winded way of examining the questions: what should I talk about in this space? And how should I talk about it? As I have pointed out recently it’s very easy to come up with a clever analogy, tie it into some recent anecdotes, and call it wisdom. Whether it’s actually wisdom is up for debate, but it’s certainly not science. Is that a problem? Should I be more scientific? Should I dispense with analogies and make these posts as scientific as possible? Include footnotes to supporting journal articles, caveat everything with confidence levels, only talk about things where there’s a preponderance of evidence? There’s absolutely a place for that, and certainly things which claim to be scientific should make sure they’re actually engaged in science. But science brings a host of problems when you try and transform it into a philosophy for life and then slot it into the space previously occupied by religion.
Right as I was in the midst of writing these words I saw a tweet from Taleb which pithily summed up the problem:
If there is someone spreading statistical illiteracy & naive empiricism, it is @sapinker.
Statistics is hard.
Of course being a tweet it has to be part of some twitter feud, in this case it’s the long running battle between Steven Pinker and Taleb. But that also is part of the point I’m trying to make. Breaking out the points of the tweet:
- “Statistics is hard” – This is true not only of statistics, but all of science. And many people have followed the best advice of the scientific experts only to find out later that it was entirely wrong. Nutritional advice is a great example of this.
- “Naive empiricism” – Closely related to above many people naively champion what they claim is science, without understanding things like replication, second order effects, or the filters through which the scientific knowledge has passed before it gets to them.
- The accusation against Steven Pinker. If we choose to believe Taleb, that even Harvard professors engage in naive empiricism, then what chance does the bulk of humanity have in understanding and adopting a scientific philosophy? Even if we disagree with Taleb, it’s clear that in the absence of religion most people don’t turn to rationality and science, or if they do it’s selectively in confirmation of the biases they already have.
To sum all this up I think there is a real need for things that can be “understood by anyone”. My contention would be, particularly with respect to long standing religious injunctions, that they’re going to be at least as good if not better than any of the more modern philosophies which attempt to improve on morality by being more rational or scientific, because religion is easier to understand and apply. And this is why I’m going to continue to put forth analogies, speculative philosophy and other similar stuff. Yes, I may be wrong. (Which I have never been shy of admitting.) But I think it will be both easier to grasp why I might be wrong, and also easier to understand how I could be correct.
Accordingly, the foregoing basically amounts to a long strange defense of using analogies in my writing, while, furthermore, building to a discussion and dissection of one particular analogy, which I’m going to use as something of a stand-in for all analogies.
This analogy is something a friend of mine came up with. He brought it up recently in a conversation we were having about politics. He called it the chemotherapy analogy. When someone with cancer undergoes chemotherapy, everyone knows that some healthy, non-cancerous cells are going to die along with the cancerous cells. The hope is that they can eradicate all of the cancerous cells before killing the patient. (Question: Do you have to get every last cancer cell to prevent it from returning? This will be important later.) Thus a balance must be struck. Make the chemo too potent and you may unnecessarily kill more healthy cells than necessary; you want it just potent enough to sufficiently eradicate the cancer and no more.
The analogy part comes if we imagine that people or ideas could represent a cancer on the body of the nation (perhaps even civilization as a whole?) In eradicating the cancer we have to be careful about how aggressive we are. If we’re too aggressive we may not only “kill” some healthy ideas, but we might kill the patient. If we’re not aggressive enough then we still risk the death of the patient, but this time it will be the cancerous ideas that kill him/her, not the aggressive treatment. Initially this struck me as a useful way of looking at things, but in an attempt to be more thoughtful, rather than just presenting it, I thought I’d go farther and dissect it.
As I said I was initially struck by some of its strengths, so I’ll start there. To begin with you can never have too many analogies about the inevitable tradeoffs that come with any policy. Yes cracking down on certain forms of speech will almost certainly target people who should probably be silenced, but that crack down will also probably silence people who shouldn’t be silenced, people who have useful contributions.
The fact that cancerous cells are hidden among healthy cells is also a strength of the comparison, since bad actors are spread out among honest citizens. In cancer the ideal situation is to catch it early when it’s small and localized and the prognosis for a surgical excision of the cancer is still good. I think we hope the same thing can be done with dangerous people and ideas. That we can find a small cell of radicals and deal just with them in a surgical strike. Additionally although chemo does harm healthy cells it’s designed in such a way to be disproportionately harmful to cancer cells. In the same way while there is the possibility of unduly punishing the innocent, all of our methodology is designed around targeting cancerous people and ideas without harming the healthy. Tying this all together we could say that the methodology of treating cancerous cells and cancerous ideas bear a lot of similarities.
At some point, though, we have to move on from methodology as metaphor to deciding what constitutes our metaphorical cancer. Here I think the analogy becomes less useful. I am sure that there are people on the left who feel that white supremacists and their accompanying ideology is a perfect use of the analogy. You have something that started out as a tumor (the Confederacy) we tried to surgically remove the tumor (the Civil War), but we didn’t get it all. It continued to fester and metastasize until now it’s everywhere, and it’s only through the application of really aggressive chemotherapy that we have any hope of eradicating it. And yes occasionally this very aggressive chemo is going to target people it shouldn’t. (Though they would argue this is incredibly rare.) But it’s our only hope if we’re going to save the patient.
On the other side you could argue that excessive immigration is a form of cancer. Here we start with the premise that a certain level of cell division and renewal is healthy and expected, and that this represents the level of immigration where immigrants are eventually assimilated. But just as cancer occurs when cells start to divide uncontrollably, overwhelming the healthy initial cells, immigration can become a metaphorical cancer when the immigrants stop assimilating or when immigration starts to overwhelm the initially healthy patient. People who like this version of the analogy are not opposed to all immigration, but they are in favor of assimilation rather than multiculturalism while also feeling that there is a level of immigration which could be excessive. That in this version chemo might keep out some worthy immigrants but that it’s necessary because you can’t let in everyone who wants to immigrate to America, there are just too many.
Of course, there might also be disagreement in who the patient is. In the most recent example it’s clearly the United States. But in the first it seems like it could be equality and progress regardless of the country. And, as I reflect, I realize that there are people who were already using cancer or at least disease as an analogy, but with the patient as whole earth and humanity as the disease. As an aside, this latter analogy is interesting because it lends itself naturally to the idea that just as humans run fevers when they’re sick that global warming is a similar phenomenon with respect to the Earth. I’m not sure what the metaphorical chemotherapy would be in this example. Nor do I think, as a human myself, that thinking of humanity as a disease is particularly helpful.
I also wonder if the idea of cancer, which reproduces uncontrollably, wouldn’t take us in the wrong direction? In the past I have talked about Robin Hanson’s contention that the modern world represents something of a Dreamtime. That many of our habits and behaviors are profoundly non-adaptive. One example of this is the fall in reproductive rates. Which is to say our “cancer” may have nothing to do with out of control reproduction at all, but rather a long slow death spiral where humanity effectively gives up on reproduction. This takes us to my next question, what does it mean, metaphorically, for the host to die?
We know when an individual has died, but what does it mean for a nation to die? Surely even the most conservative can agree that we have already changed quite a bit as a nation, that we are not the nation we once were and that much of the change has been positive. Have we already died and been reborn countless times? And if so, is fearing yet another death silly? That said nations and civilizations do die, and it’s not very pretty when they do.
On the other side I could see where killing progress, which is presumably the driver of beneficial change, might seem objectively more worrisome, but I also have my doubts that the battle lines are so clearly drawn. Or that what we mean by “progress” or “progressive” today is exactly the same or exactly as efficacious as what those words once meant, say 50 or 100 years ago. But I am sympathetic to those for whom progress = a healthy society.
Still, to completely flip it around, it’s interesting to use the difference between healthy cell division and uncontrolled cell division as a metaphor. Is it possible that progress was once essentially healthy cell division, but that, as it became more extreme, it transitioned into some form of cancer? That rather than worrying about societal cancer killing progress, we should be worried that a modern conception of progress is the cancer? Before you dismiss this idea entirely, recall that however abhorrent conditions were in the past with respect to slavery, violence and equality, that they did not “kill” the patient. The claim that we need to use radical chemo on the patient to fight them now when all three are objectively better on nearly every metric, seems misguided. Recall that people die sooner than they would have otherwise because of chemotherapy all the time.
Having dealt with what may or may not be metaphorical cancer, I’d like to briefly take a deeper look at the treatment. I asked earlier whether we need to eliminate every last cancer cell or whether it was sufficient to beat it back to a certain level. I’ve always assumed that it’s impossible to get rid of every last cancer cell, that you merely needed to get it down to a level where the body’s natural defenses could stay on top of it. But I realized as I was writing this, that I wasn’t sure (nor was a Google search particularly illuminating). I bring it up because it feels like in the current culture war/metaphorical chemotherapy we’re engaged in that there is a contingent of people who believe we can’t allow even a single potential bad actor or bad idea to remain. This is perhaps where the metaphor is at its strongest, as we repeatedly see ideas that are largely benign if unfashionable set upon with the full fury of our metaphorical chemotherapy. And yes, perhaps these healthy cells have to be destroyed in order to also get the actual cancer, but I kind of suspect that they don’t. In fact, I would actually argue that if we do have a cancer it’s one of those slow-moving types that are better to leave alone because you’ll die of natural causes before the cancer kills you. Where the cure is worse than the disease.
In the end what are we left with? Is there any wisdom in this analogy? Does it help us make the decisions required of us going forward? I think, as we saw, it’s an analogy that might be used by either side to make them feel more justified in doing what they were already going to do. Obviously that’s a point against it. Also as I made clear, there’s zero science involved in it either, in fact in my description of cancer I have probably distorted things rather than clarified them.
Still despite all of this, I think anyone who made it this far has a different way of thinking about trade-offs and tactics in the current culture war. And is hopefully less inclined to indiscriminately apply metaphorical chemotherapy. Perhaps they have also done some deep thinking they might not have otherwise done. If nothing else, coming up with reasons why I’m wrong. Finally the multiple possible interpretations may, in fact, be a strength. For myself, I think I’m slightly more sympathetic to those who see bigotry as a cancer which threatens the engine of progress.
To toss in just the tiniest amount of religion, there’s a reason Jesus taught in parables, and I would strongly contend that parables, analogies, metaphors, etc. are still useful. Plus at this point, I’m starting to feel like we can’t take anything off the table, particularly any tool which makes people and conflicts easier to understand, and hopefully empathize with.
Allow me to present the parable of the grateful blog reader, who came upon someone blogging in the desert and who gave him water, bound up his wounds, set him on his own beast, brought him to an inn, and donated.
I think analogies are the most powerful when they’re employed as a method of communicating a concept that is otherwise difficult to describe. Indeed, it’s the nature of analogies and parables that after telling one, you often have to go on to explaining what it meant.
Jesus didn’t teach in parables because he was trying to plumb the depths of what it was like to randomly drop seeds around town. He had specific ideas to communicate, and used the specific places (and the words he used to describe them) he chose to tell about in order to make his points.
I think a less useful application of analogy is to say, “if X is like Y, what lessons can we learn about Y when we analyze X?” All analogies break down at some point, because no two things are exactly alike. We can still learn lessons if we’re watching closely. But I think analogies should be shared in a broader attempt to communicate an idea that’s otherwise difficult to explain.
Like when I explain to my toddler that dinner tastes like something he knows and likes. He approaches it with a different frame of reference and learns to enjoy it like I do. The analogy is necessary because he has never tasted the food before.
Sure, you could imagine that the utility of an analogy ranges from “Holy cow! This clarifies everything.” To “That’s an interesting way to look at things, I’m not convinced it’s right” But even the latter has some positive utility. What I’m unconvinced of is that there are any analogies which have any negative utility without actually, definitionally no longer being analogies. Yes there are “less useful applications”, but I’m not sure there are useless or harmful applications.
I guess I’m skeptical of the claim that an analogy won’t lead us astray, or cause real harm if misapplied. Especially since all analogies break down at some point, the question becomes, what’s the limiting principle at play?
I would suggest this: to be useful for exploratory purposes, we need to understand what causes the two compared things to be similar. That way we’ll know where the analogy breaks down. Let’s take an example:
Venezuela is socialist. It’s getting so bad there they’re cancelling flights. So go all socialist countries.
Really? Perhaps there are some planned economies that will go better. Maybe it’s other aspects of the country’s experience that caused their current words. Which features of Venezuelan governance will translate to another country are endlessly debated. As also with various European states.
If we shifted the frame and looked at something else, we might say, “Venezuela is just like so many Arab countries. Lots of oil wealth, but ultimately this leads to instability.” We could follow any number of lessons from their experience, many of which would ultimately be wrong.
So we have to impose limits and controls.
I’d like to defend science for a minute – in the soft sciences no less! And I’d like to do it in context of philosophy. Let’s say you have two philosophers. Both are interested in the problem of poverty. Both agree that poverty is a bad thing, and both seek ways to intervene in order to help the poor. So far, so good.
The first philosopher says, “I have an idea. Since most people derive their wealth from their income, and since poor people disproportionately derive theirs from their income, what if we set a floor price on wages, such that you cannot pay someone less than a certain minimum wage. This would have multiple benefits. First, it costs the government almost nothing (other than minimum enforcement costs, which can simply be rolled into the cost of maintaining a functioning court system). Second, it targets the people we are interested in, namely the poor and low-wage workers.”
The second philosopher argues this policy will have adverse unintended impacts. At this point the arguments and counter-arguments go back and forth. Indeed, we’re all familiar with them at this point.
Enter the scientific method. A third philosopher – this one a philosopher of science! – agrees with the first philosopher and designs an experiment to test whether his ideas have merit. He does so and publishes a study showing an increase in the minimum wage has statistically significant positive impacts for the poor.
A fourth philosopher – a second scientist – agrees with the con side of the argument. He conducts a study showing there are negative impacts of minimum wage. The scientists go back and forth on this for a couple of decades. There is no definite answer about whether the impact of the minimum wage is positive or negative, and good faith disagreements continue to rage. People wonder whether science is really any good at anything.
The first philosopher and the second philosopher come back together again:
P1: We can’t agree on my idea about the minimum wage. I don’t know that we ever will come to a solid agreement about this.
P2: You’re probably right. Philosophy alone was not enough. but when we tested the hypothesis, we discovered it was a hair that can be split forever ad infinitum.
P1: Then we will never know if this is the right policy.
P2: The question was never whether this was the ‘right policy’. The question was ‘how do we help the poor?’. This policy may or may not help the poor a little bit. But let’s not take our eyes off the real goal.
P1: Yes, we started by looking for a solution to poverty, one that would significantly improve the lives of the least fortunate. I still believe my policy would contribute positively toward ending poverty.
P2: But is it the panacea you were hoping it would be?
P1: I think the fact that reasonable people disagree on which direction the impact arrow points answers that question.
P2: Okay, then I have a different proposal. I think this one really will end poverty forever…
And on it goes. The point of science and facts is to rigorously test your hypothesis and attempt to prove yourself wrong. The reason you do this is not because you’re trying to shore up the possible weaknesses of your preferred philosophical argument, or because you want to use Science as a sort of appeal to authority (“It has to be true, I have a study saying so!”).
The reason you turn to the scientific method is because you recognize the limits of philosophy alone. The biggest limit of philosophy is that it has a very high false positive rate. Let’s say your philosophy generates 10,000 proposed ideas. You reason through these, and discover that about 50% of them are logically inconsistent. That leaves you with 5,000 ideas that are logically consistent.
Someone else might come along and argue that they are not logically consistent with a different set of premises. You argue for awhile about premises, which ones are correct and represent the world in which we live. You can do this forever and never get any closer to the truth. At some point you have to test your ideas against the real world. My own personal experience in testing premises suggests that perhaps only a handful of those original – solidly logical – ideas will withstand attempts at falsification. It’s just really easy to come up with a true-sounding but ultimately wrong hypothesis. And the problem is that you don’t get 10,000 hypotheses in without that 9,999th hypothesis being based on a large number of previous hypotheses, many of which are wrong.
So the first problem with the scientific method is that people are using it wrong. Instead of using it to try their best to prove an idea is false, they use it to try and prove an idea is true. It’s not really designed to do that. All you can do is say, “Okay, you may be right that this is incorrect, but I’ve really tried to prove it false and failed to do so.”
Next, testing a hypothesis usually takes the form of, “If X is true, I would expect Y. I will test for Y.” Except you can’t test Y directly. The world is complex and resists attempts to simplify it. So you end up testing, not Y, but a certain subset of Y. Thus you continue to test and retest your hypothesis, refining it to incorporate multiple (sometimes conflicting) results of subsets of Y. And here’s where people get off track. The point was never ‘Y must happen!’ The point was to ask, ‘is X true?’ And at some point you’ve narrowed down the answer to something like “If X is true, I can expect a limited subset of Y. That constrains X to the point that it’s not really that interesting anymore.” Or perhaps, “Given Y, we need to rethink what X is capable of, and perhaps modify X to achieve the results we’re looking for.”
So the second problem with the scientific method is that people are still using it wrong. They go off to test a hypothesis, but when they return to the original problem the hypothesis was intended to address they’ve become so invested in the hypothesis itself that the problem becomes subsidiary to the hypothesis. The tail wags the dog, as it were, and instead of using the scientific method to gain a better understanding of their world, people abandon understanding of their world in an attempt to continue flogging the hypothesis until it conforms to their wishes.
A combination of these two poor uses of the scientific method causes people to throw up their hands and say, “Science can’t solve our problems!” or “In order to use the science effectively I’d have to spend my life studying this one problem. And since I’m not an expert I have to ignore the science.” I don’t think either is a good approximation of what science is good for. It’s really good when we have an idea and we want to make sure it’s not one of those 99.98% of ideas that are compelling but wrong. Or perhaps one of those 0.01% of ideas that are true but only trivially so. We want to focus on the things that matter. That’s what science is good at helping us do, if we use it right.
1- I totally, absolutely and in all other respects agree that we should test the hypotheses exactly as you describe with minimum wage laws.
2- The question is what do we do in the meantime? Do we stop discussing the poor? It would seem the answer is obviously not. And attempting to make that discussion as useful as possible is still a worthwhile goal.
3- Your point about not losing sight of the initial goal (helping the poor) vs. your idea for helping the poor (minimum wage) is incredibly valuable.
4- As is your point about not losing site of falsifiability, proving wrong rather than proving right.
5- As far as the 10,000 ideas, we have been having ideas since the dawn of time, and part of what I’m arguing is that much of the testing has already been done in the crucible of culture and evolution, and that while we’re conducting scientific tests we shouldn’t abandon the other more organic testing which has been done.
6- All of which is to say I’m a huge fan of science, but I think if we use “Science!” as an excuse to abandon other methods of inquiry that we misunderstand both.
2. What we’ve always done, continue working on new solutions and refining the old ones. Perhaps minimum wage doesn’t work well as originally conceived, but some variant will be wildly successful. As such it will likely contain many of the strong benefits mentioned above.
5. Yes, remembering of course that throughout that time there was never a moment where all of the above wasn’t being constantly tested, refined, and where appropriate jettisoned for newer and better evidence. Yes, we should give additional weight to proven methods, but not so much we can’t change when necessary. The one thing our ancestors all did was change when necessary.
6. I absolutely agree.
Sorry, one more comment for the week. As a cancer researcher, I have to point out some of the common misconceptions of chemotherapy. It’s not just “it attacks your other cells”. It attacks all rapidly-dividing cells. The most important of which are the immune-system cells. If you give chemo too hard or too frequently you risk allowing infections to kill the patient (or also anemia, since RBCs are produced by rapidly-dividing products of hematopoiesis, but I digress) So let’s take that to one of the analogies above, namely free speech. It’s not the case that you’ll just be causing collateral damage, and you want to avoid that. It’s that you’re damaging the very systems you’ll need later on to protect yourself from other – more imminent – threats.
Back in the days of MLK, the government thought of the man we now think of as a great reformer akin to what might be classified as a terrorist. The changes in the movement he helped propel were an important and necessary part of American history. They were also the exact kind of movement that would have been targeted by policies against people like white supremacists. Yes, you’ll get the supremacists – maybe – but you’ll also take out tomorrow’s reformers.
A second lesson we might take from the chemo example is that cancer isn’t always what we think we see from the outside. There’s some evidence that many cancers are derived from a kind of cancer stem cell. One of the distinguishing features of these CSCs is that they DON’T rapidly divide. They might divide once a week or so. As such, no non-lethal dose of chemotherapy is going to be effective against them. It may look like you’re almost getting the cancer on an MRI or a CT-PET, but in reality all you’re doing is destroying the immune system that was keeping the cancer in check. The CSCs were fine, and the cancer will come back harder and faster next time.
So although chemotherapy has its place in oncology, newer approaches don’t target the rapid cell division feature of cancer. And really a cure to cancer itself requires we eventually abandon this approach. New therapies target the underlying causes of cancer.
Take that back to the white supremacists. In my experience many white supremacists are expressing concerns of economic disenfranchisement. They see other groups, such as minorities and immigrants, getting benefits they don’t. They live in a trailer park in rural Tennessee, where there are fewer teeth than wheels on cars. Where nobody ever leaves, and the roads are occasionally paved. They work in a factory long enough to see it get bought out or shut down. They switch to different factory jobs a couple of times over the years. They work some at-home call center job for awhile, but never anything that’s reliable for more than five years or so.
Then, their children want to go to college, but the schools were horrible, so they can’t qualify for anything quality. They don’t get special privileges to state schools because their skin is white as the driven snow. They see poor people around them get special considerations, but they’re told that nobody will ever help them out with – because of the color of their skin. Intergenerational poverty is their privilege. Some guys come around telling them that the problem with this country is white people can’t get ahead. The system is rigged against them, just as it was rigged against their parents. Join the white supremacists and take back the future you never had. Do it for your kids!
They join these small, sad little rallies, that are only ever covered so they can be mocked or derided on national TV. Are they going away because we hit them hard with speech restrictions and the like? No! Because attacking the speech itself is akin to agreeing with the absurd notion that these people’s problems come from or can be solved through skin color. It’s attacking something that looks like, but is fundamentally not, the cause of the problem. Taking their economic concerns seriously – attacking the root of the problem – is really the only way we solve white supremacy. If we said, “Yes, it looks like despite the fact that you’re white your family has lived in intergenerational poverty. We need to find a solution to that problem – the problem that you can’t get ahead regardless of your skin color – rather than the fact that you have weird ideas,” we would win back some hearts and minds from the cancer of white supremacy and perhaps eliminate it altogether. If instead we say, “Your ideas are bizarre and stupid, so you no longer get to talk,” we’ll never solve the underlying malignancy.
“Sorry, one more comment for the week. As a cancer researcher, I have to point out some of the common misconceptions of chemotherapy. It’s not just “it attacks your other cells”. It attacks all rapidly-dividing cells. The most important of which are the immune-system cells. If you give chemo too hard or too frequently you risk allowing infections to kill the patient (or also anemia, since RBCs are produced by rapidly-dividing products of hematopoiesis, but I digress) So let’s take that to one of the analogies above, namely free speech. It’s not the case that you’ll just be causing collateral damage, and you want to avoid that. It’s that you’re damaging the very systems you’ll need later on to protect yourself from other – more imminent – threats.”
Would it be fair to say that this is you actually using the analogy in the way I was saying? Because that’s what it looks like to me. 😉 *Analogy working as intended*
It also sounds like the “Taking their economic concerns seriously – attacking the root of the problem – is really the only way we solve white supremacy” is also derived from extending the analogy… Which is precisely the kind of thing I was hoping for.
Also you indirectly answered my “every last cancer cell” question, so that’s awesome as well.
Some ways we should limit the analogy:
Chemotherapy has been really good for fighting cancer. In the absence of better treatments, it has saved and/or extended many lives. Many mothers have raised their children because chemotherapy have them a few more years, cleared their disease long term, or eliminated their child’s leukemia.
Childhood leukemia is a great example of chemo success. The physician who first started hitting kids with multiple concurrent strong doses of chemotherapy was derided, but it worked and dramatically reduced the mortality of that disease. Indeed, in children especially harder doses of chemo seem to work best.
How shall we extend this to free speech? Maybe when our society is really sick we need to resort to draconian methods. Sure they aren’t ideal, but they’re better than waiting for something better to come along.
Maybe young democracies would benefit from extra strong, nigh-totalitarian levels of censorship. It will cure their problem and they’ll soon bounce back stronger.
Did I break the analogy yet? 😁 I could go on. I know a lot about cancer.
I’m going to have to examine this post a bit more, possibly get to the podcast on the way to work tomorrow. Interesting we just don’t know about cancer. Presumably successful chemo kills all the cancer cells. But we have cases where people have been in remission for decades and then it comes back and it’s the same cancer because its DNA matches. Killing all the cancer cells may not necessarily be possible with chemo. Newer therapies make the immune system attack the cancer cells but that doesn’t answer the question of whether it kills all the cancer or just puts it in check. Perhaps cancer is always inside but ‘in check’ in our bodies.
In terms of philosophy, though, I think you missed philosophy C:
Philosophy C: What we care about is reducing the murder rate and that’s it.
Let’s imagine it becomes possible to tell which people will take philosophy A and enjoy a 100% reduction in murder and which can only be helped by B. Philosophy C says use that technique and preach atheism to some and theism to the rest. You have now talked your way into excommunication by the Mormon Church, and most others. Christian thought is premised on sharing the ‘good news’, but in essence you’re thought experiment says you should share ‘fake news’ should it accomplish philosophy C’s directive. If you believe in B, then you believe in preaching the truth to all. If you believe in A, you believe in the truth. If you believe in C, you believe truth is a secondary concern.
This IMO creates the worst of all possible worlds. You’ve created the intellectual framework for the classic right wing wet dream, namely that the world consists of large numbers of stupid people who should be lead by people who know better. Of course, right wingers who get into this mindset naturally imagine the fact that they have figured this out is evidence that they are among the wise elite who are worthy of being trusted with running things.
But clearly truth can’t be a secondary affair. You imagine there’s some truth to the question of which tactic works better to stop murders, after all. It seems tricky to imagine Plato’s ‘Noble Lie’ as really embodying how universal truth would work. How exactly would it be useful evolution wise to design a species where only a small group can ‘handle the truth’ and the rest need a lie? What would happen if the elite got killed? What makes the elite so capable of handling the truth? Is there some gene, a Colonel Nathan Jessup gene let’s say, that such people have? Is it reading really hard books in high school that sets up some type of neural pathway? More likely to say we are all in this together hence whatever THE answer is we should all try to get at it.
The philosophy C approach does have some interesting repercussions. I’ll probably have to think about it some more. Though I think in essence ending up with the best overall morality was the unstated philosophy underlying my entire discussion, and the answer I arrived at was “all theism all the time” because it’s easier to understand, and also I have seen no evidence that atheism produces measurably better morality even leaving aside how easy it is to understand.
Also I would say the framework of “the world consist[ing] of large numbers of stupid people who should be lead by people who know better” is a left wing wet dream, but I sense this is one of those places where you’d offer strenuous opposition, and I don’t have the time for one of those debates, at the moment. (I’d definitely want to do more research.)
Finally evolution selects for survival, not some some Platonic ideal of truth, meaning I think it’s very possible for evolution to design a species where only a small group can handle the truth. Do you think everyone can handle the truth? If so, is that what’s currently happening? If not what’s preventing it?
I think what’s worth thinking about here is Philosophy C is really just the underlying philosophy you are using. You’re attempting to measure A and B by their outcome. In a sense you’re a philosophical utilitarian or pragmatist.
As for wet dreams, I think it’s a rationalization of anyone whose acquired too much unchecked power for too long. But if you start going to just about any discussion of voting, you’re not going to have to do much reading before you get right wingers saying something like “stupid people shouldn’t vote, if you can’t get a photo ID you should just stay home” Underlying premise is if only you can keep voting to the enlightened, things are better. This isn’t anything new. Monarchists rejected democracy, granting the vote to non-property holders was opposed, the direct election of Senators was opposed (and you’ll still find many right wingers who have that as a pet peeve dream cause).
“Do you think everyone can handle the truth? If so, is that what’s currently happening? If not what’s preventing it?”
Interestingly you should also consider evolution selects for survival but eliminating murder isn’t necessarily the same thing. Your thought experiment frets about 100 murders per 10,000 people but does lowering that figure do anything for survival? Why would you have to ‘choose’ a philosophy for survival when evolution has been doing the job for the last 4B+ years?
I think saying you’re utilitarian is a bit off here. Your are making a judgement about philosophies based on some set of values and evaluating A and B by how they accomplish those values. But what are those values? You would like to see us surviving with less rather than more murders. In reality the mystery here is Philosophy X. The underlying set of values you are using to judge these things are getting glossed over when they are perhaps what should be examined more.
Anyway is it possible for evolution to design a species where only a small group can handle ‘truth’? I think that’s a tough order. Imagine Apple has no computers and no servers. All their processing is done on a huge network of iphones. There are no magic iphones, they are all the same. Maybe just the software is different on some of the mangement ones but they are all the same iphones. I think the engineers would say this might be doable but it would be very hard to pull off. Let us have a few servers at least…..
In order to buy this ‘a few can handle the truth’ model you have to tell us that evolution created a species where some members are iphones and some are servers. Yet they can interbreed with each other and have the same anatomy, same DNA, same development and life cycle. Possible? I suppose but I don’t think you have any evidence this could apply to humans.
I think you’ve stretched the metaphor too far and the point is getting muffled. The host was trying to point out that a moral system that requires a higher degree of intellectual input than most individuals are willing/capable of investing will struggle in the efficacy department.
By way of example, he hypothesized a perfect system in contrast to a mediocre system. He then went on to say he’s not even claiming atheism and religion approach this artificial construct, or even that atheism is better and not worse. He’s just saying that accessibility may be more important than accuracy anyway, at a society-wide level.
On an individual level, of course we search for truth. If we’re calibrating our expectations based on an evolutionary perspective, we will notice that species fitness doesn’t care about ultimate truth so much as it cares about genetic propagation. Thus, a purely intellectual approach that takes years of time and effort to bear fruit will not be preferred above something that’s better than or at least nearly as good as the solution with long load times.
Meanwhile, this whole discussion is all about static systems, when both atheism and religion are dynamic and interactive. That’s the real hybrid system that plays off is components in an adversarial way.
Some people can’t understand higher math, some people can’t bench press hundreds of pounds, and some people don’t have perfect pitch. They can interbreed with those who are capable of each of these feats. I suspect most variation serves a good survival purpose. Biology isn’t about engineering for efficiency, it’s about refining for robustness. It’s strange that humans always want to engineer the best features out of biological systems.
I think this is somewhat akin to Plato’s ‘noble lie’. Plato felt society should be stratified with a ruling class. He proposed the population be taught that some men were born with gold mixed in them while others have silver or bronze. The gold people, presumably, are more fit to rule hence should be yielded too.
What I think you suggest is an acknowledgement that some things are perplexing and will remain unknown for people. For example, you may know little or nothing about how Central Banks work and fully expect to live the rest of your life ignorant of that. If not Central Banking then maybe quantum physics, or how the post office works or how your email gets to you.
The first strategy is misaligned, purposefully, with truth while the second is acknowledging a truth. The question, then, is can a misaligned truth work to promote a greater truth? For example, Santa Claus is a lie but perhaps you can say it serves a greater truth (children should be good, or at least marginally less bad).
I suspect Santa is more of the exception that proves the rule. Truth is tricky because there’s one way to be true but lots of ways to be false. Odds are a false path will lead you to more faleshoods while a true path will at least keep you to the truth even if it requires you to climb some mountains that are beyond your ability.
I see where you’re coming from, and I think the disconnect is that we read the OP in entirely opposite ways. You read it as, “What if religion is wrong, but still useful for the majority of people in a way that the Truth of atheism isn’t? Doesn’t that justify a preference for religion over atheism?” And if that were the question I’d agree with everything you’ve said so far. We don’t abandon the search for truth just because it’s hard, and we don’t treat a subset of the population as ‘superior’ and everyone else ‘inferior’ because we’ve identified some trait (like an affinity for a certain collection of esoteric concepts) we can use to set them apart from others.
But we don’t objectively know religion is wrong and atheism is right. We can nail down some specifics, like how a universal is nigh impossible. We should not read the account of Noah and think, “I guess that means Everest was under water a couple thousand years ago,” since that doesn’t fit a mountain of evidence. But more general questions such as, “Does God exist” are currently beyond our ability to objectively measure. And those are the more interesting questions.
Thus, you could construct a hypothetical scenario where Philosophy A is known to be false but useful and Philosophy B is known to be true but inaccessible. The real scenario is Philosophy A is of unknown validity but is accessible and produces better aggregate outcomes. Philosophy B is also of unknown validity and fails to produce better aggregate outcomes (summing the population of its adherents). Not only that, it also appears to produce worse per capita outcomes (averaging instead of summing) on some metrics we care about, such as charitable giving (both of money and of community engagement).
The hypothetical scenario is interesting to contemplate, but ultimately moot. We don’t have a mechanism of arriving at ultimate truth through objective means. So the idea that we might have an objective measure of ultimate truth but abandon that in favor of better aggregate outcomes is fictional, no matter if it’s represented by religion vs. atheism or by some other mechanism.
I think the OP could have used a more true to life example to illustrate the point. For example, in the field of rheumatology the vast majority of patients respond well to drugs that are cheap but of limited efficacy. If you walk in with moderate RA, one of the first things your doctor is going to give you is methotrexate. You’ll try that out for a little while, and for most people it controls the disease with acceptable side effects. If it doesn’t work you may be switched to a biologic like Enbrel. The thing is, we know Enbrel will work for the patients who respond to MTX, and it will work much better. But monoclonal antibodies are expensive to produce, and MTX has been off patent for decades. So MTX costs a few dollars, while Enbrel costs something like $20k/yr. Thus, one therapy is much less effective, but is broadly available. The other is narrowly available, but much more effective.
If we’re looking at something like general lawlessness (or specifically murder) we might say that most people respond well to the traditional treatment of formal rules + social pressure + moral compunctions. Meanwhile, some people may require a more intensive form of therapy (to say nothing of how poor our ‘treatments’ often are). It would be absurd to apply the targeted rule more broadly, because the costs are too high (sending everyone to prison, or perhaps universal parole).
Just to be clear. I think rationality is the noble lie and I believe that God does exist. And mostly the blog was written from the standpoint of trying to convince rationalists that they system doesn’t even work under their own terms (overall effectiveness) but it does work under mine. Which makes religion not only true, but effective…