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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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. 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.