Friday, June 9, 2017

Thoughts on Ideological Purity

A couple of times recently I've heard the phrase "ideological purity", and thought, "That's really what some people want, isn't it?" Part of the reason our country is so polarized, I think, is that there are vocal minorities on both sides of the political spectrum who insist on ideological purity. They have an orthodoxy, and they try to enforce it. They view moderate and independent members of their own party as heretics (or at least dangerously lapsed), and they view the other party as infidels and villains so irredeemable that it's a waste of time to engage with them.

On the far right is a vocal minority that refuses to compromise on anything, and attacks more moderate conservatives, calling them "Republicans in Name Only" or even "cuckservatives". Or they accuse them of being slaves to political correctness. 


Which brings us to the far left. While some conservatives have distorted the meaning of political correctness beyond recognition, and claim they're "not bowing to political correctness" when they're really just being rude or hateful, some on the left really do insist on a rigid form of political correctness. It is an orthodoxy, and they do try to enforce it. After all, the literal meaning of the words "politically correct" implies that there's a political viewpoint--and manner of speaking--which is indisputably the "correct" one. We've all seen the conservative speakers shouted down on liberal campuses, and even "ideologically impure" liberal professors have been targeted for their heresies. And have you noticed there's a whole genre of articles circulating on social media entitled "Why You Need to Stop Saying ________."?

Some on the far left really do try to tell others, across the political spectrum, exactly how they should be thinking and speaking. It may be worse on the left than the right, and I say that as a moderate liberal. Even as I write this, I'm wondering who will be offended by it, and whether they will write me off as a heretic. Do moderate conservatives have similar fears?

In any case, I think there are many problems with these attempts to enforce orthodoxy. One is that more moderate and independent types on both sides (who are actually the majority) are afraid to speak their minds, not for fear of being attacked by the other side, but for fear of being attacked by the orthodox wing of their own side. So there's fragmentation and bad blood within as well as between political parties, and the country grows more fragmented and dysfunctional. 

But there's another problem with ideological orthodoxy that I want to focus on here, and it is this: Once you declare that one particular stance on an issue cannot be wrong, and should not be questioned, you have stopped reasoning about that issue. And once you declare that others can't question an ideology, you've said that they must stop reasoning, too. People with rigid ideologies may still be "thinking", in the sense of spending mental energy defending or elaborating that ideology, but if there is no possibility of changing their ideology, they aren't really reasoning. Because the whole point of reasoning is to discover truths you didn't already know. Isn't it?

And chances are, there's a lot we don't already know. What are the chances that either extreme on the political spectrum (which is an artificial construct anyway) in this particular country, at this particular time in history, has finally got it figured out? Not very high, if you ask me. The universe is far bigger and more complex than our little primate brains can easily grasp. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, and if there's one clear lesson to be learned from psychology it's that the human mind is easily fooled. Our senses are woefully limited, and we fall prey to dozens of different perceptual illusions, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. As a species, our ability to see the world clearly is so pitiful that for most of human history we didn't know the shape of the planet we spent every day of our lives on. We were so sure it was flat that we attacked the people who said it wasn't. We probably burned a few at the stake for it.

We know more now, of course (and we're slightly more tolerant of opposing views). There are things we can be confident of, but they're mostly things which can be empirically verified. We're confident enough now that the world is round, for example, that we can call it a fact. But most ideologies aren't entirely, or even mostly, factual. They're full of opinions about complex systems like economies and social dynamics that can't easily be pinned down empirically, as well as value judgments and ethical stances that may never be empirically testable. But you wouldn't know this when talking to the ideologically orthodox on both sides of the the political spectrum. They sound for all the world like they're talking about established facts, when they're usually just expressing opinions and forgetting the difference. (I've been guilty of this myself, of course).

And perhaps we can be confident of some things we can't really call facts. As I stop and think this over (that's the main reason I write these--to clarify my thoughts), I suppose there are some moral opinions that we can be pretty confident in, too. We can be confident that murder, rape, and slavery are wrong, for example--confident enough to enforce legal penalties against them. But these are clear cases that most people agree on, whereas many of the opinions people express as though they were facts really are just opinions, and not ones that most people can agree on. 

So here's the question I want to ask people at both far ends of the political spectrum: Are you really that sure that your opinions are right? So sure that you can stop reasoning about them? So sure that you can tell others to stop questioning and reasoning as well? Should anybody be THAT confident in their opinions?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sagan's Dust Mote: An Evening Reflection

Tonight I sat on my couch just as the evening sun was streaming through my west window, and I noticed a few dust particles glowing and dancing in the light. It made me think of Carl Sagan's famous reflection comparing the Earth to "a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."

His comparison was inspired by a photo of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, just as it was leaving the solar system. That's it, in the image I've posted here. That little dot in the band of light at the top is Earth, as it looks from beyond the orbit of Neptune. The "sunbeams" are actually bands of refracted sunlight created by the camera's optics, but that's a justifiable bit of poetic license. After all, Earth really is suspended in sunlight.

As I watched the dust motes in my living room swirling in that same sunlight, I thought about Sagan's comparison, and wondered how accurate it was. Is our whole world--the home of every known living thing--really that tiny? To find out, I did some figuring. I'll spare you the math and skip to the results--I think you'll find them impressive.

Imagine the Earth really were the size of one of those dust particles floating in my living room--a big one; about 30 millionths of a meter across. That speck of dust would be about 15 inches from the sun, which would be about the size of a BB. Neptune would be orbiting that BB at a distance of about 37 feet.

And the nearest star? It would be 63 miles away.

That's about the average distance between all the 100 billion or so stars in the Milky Way galaxy. If Earth were a speck of dust, the Milky Way would still be over a million miles across. And that's just one galaxy, in a universe filled with uncountable galaxies.

It seems, then, that Carl Sagan wasn't exaggerating at all. If anything, he was being too generous. On the scale of the stars, our planet is unimaginably tiny--a little speck of nothing. And yet, it's not nothing; not to us. But don't listen to me. Listen to Dr. Sagan, because he said it better than I ever could:
Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. 
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. 
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Darkness, Light, and Prairie Dogs

This past Thursday I was off work on a beautiful day in Colorado, and I was depressed. It was the National Day of Prayer, and Donald Trump was using it to sign an executive order promoting "religious freedom", which all too often these days means using religion as an excuse to discriminate. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives was using the day to vote for a bill that--if it passes the Senate and gets signed--will result in millions of people losing meaningful health insurance. And then there as a tweet by a former Republican congressman named Joe Walsh, saying "Your sad story doesn't obligate me or anybody else to pay for somebody else's health care." I figured that was a good summary of the way many Republican politicians think, and that was depressing.

So, I did what I always do when I get depressed and cynical about the human race, and took a hike. Getting out in nature always restores me. But this time, it was taking a while. I was walking along, stewing about the news and human cruelty, when I saw a litter of prairie dog pups playing, while their mother watched over them from their burrow. Every once in a while one would run back and nuzzle its mama, and then go play again. They were having a blast, and my dark mood vanished instantly. 

I thought, "However ugly humans can be, there's still all this joy and beauty in the world" Prairie dog pups have been spilling out of their burrows to play in the spring sun for millions of years. It's an ancient, rhythmic cycle of happiness that's older than humanity. And that's a beautiful, awe-inspiring thing.

So nature did its trick, and I was soothed. And I stayed that way, but my thoughts soon grew darker and more realistic. And here I need you to bear with my for a while, because I'm going to sound really cynical, but my ultimate point is not cynical at all. So buckle up--it gets ugly for a second. As I kept walking, I realized I shouldn't romanticize the prairie dog pups too much. I'm convinced they were feeling real joy as they romped, but their lives are hard. Coyotes, rattlesnakes, and hawks are out there hunting them, and not all the pups are likely to make it to adulthood. Plus, prairie dogs are plagued with disease. Literally--they get bubonic plague. And they're no angels themselves--they often kill smaller rodents who compete with them for food. 

So I kept walking, still soothed but more sober. As I came around a small hill, I heard a strange snorting sound. I started looking in the bushes, hoping to see a badger (for some reason I was imagining badgers sound like that). But it turned out to be a deer. There was a group of mule deer browsing on the hillside, and one of them was snorting, shaking its head, and pawing at its face. And here was another reminder not to romanticize nature. Most likely, the deer had been attacked by a deer bot fly. While it was grazing on bushes, the fly--which mimics a bumblebee almost perfectly--had flown up and sprayed its eggs into the deer's nose, and its young had grown into bullet-shaped worms in a cavity in the deer's head. Now the deer was slowly snorting and coughing them out, so they could go on with their horrid little life cycle. The deer will probably be fine, but it's safe to say its life is no bowl of rose petals. That's why I always scoff when I see products that say they're safe because they're "all natural". Have people SEEN what nature is capable of?

But please stay with me, and don't get me wrong. Nature is beautiful and endlessly awe-inspiring, and I love it as much as anyone I know. But it isn't benevolent. It's not malevolent, either. It just IS. Organisms in nature evolve because they find a niche that's stable. That niche may be the "playful, lovable otter" niche, or it may be the deer bot fly niche (or the bubonic plague bacterium niche, for that matter.) Evolution doesn't have a preference, because it doesn't feel empathy. It doesn't say, "I can't make a fly that does that to a deer!" Nature as a whole does not feel compassion. What happens just happens, and sometimes it's pretty awful. 

And I think many Republicans with a social-Darwinist outlook, like Joe Walsh of the Mean Tweet, think that's something humans should emulate. While some liberals romanticize nature by seeing it as benevolent, there's a subset of conservatives who look to the callousness of nature for an ethical example. And both are committing that most common of fallacies, the appeal to nature fallacy. The fact that nature does something doesn't mean we should. Mammals often commit infanticide. Male ducks practice what's euphemistically called "forced copulation". These things are absolutely natural, because they happen in nature all the time. Does that mean we should do them, too?

Hell no.

And that's my non-cynical point, if you've stayed with me this long: even if nature as a whole is pitiless, compassion and empathy do exist, and they can be cultivated. It doesn't just exist in humans. I believe a mother prairie dog feels compassion (and maybe even joy) as she watches her babies play. Many animals seem to be compassionate toward their close relatives. A few of the more brainy mammals and birds form friendships with non-relatives, occasionally even from other species. There's a whole theory of why this happens, called reciprocal altruism, but the point is that they've widened the circle of care beyond family. Humans have widened it even further. We, or at least most of us, are capable of looking at other sentient beings and realizing they are capable of joy and suffering, just like we are. If nothing else, sheer, cold logic should tell us that other people's hopes, desires, fears, and pains are just as real and intense to them as ours are to us. Why wouldn't they be? 

Even if other animals are capable of this sort of realization (and I bet some are) there's not much they can do about it. We're different. We can look at nature's dearth of kindness and compassion and say, "That's not good enough." Once I came upon a dog stranded on a pillar of rock. Its owner told me later it had been missing for a week. Nature would have let that dog die, but I didn't. I got it off that rock and got it some food and water. And you would have too. And that is an amazing thing. Think about it: we are a part of nature that is actually capable of seeing suffering in the world, and deciding to do something about it. We are, at least in this part of the universe, nature's conscience. 

Or we could be. We have that potential. But history has shown that we sharpen nature's hardest edges as often as we smooth them. The worst of us have invented cruelties nature could never match, because nature isn't cruel. It may be mostly compassionless, but it doesn't revel in the pain of others. Some people unfortunately do. So, cruelty, like kindness, is also a rare element in the universe, and I think most of us are capable of both under the right circumstances. There's a darkness in us darker than anything in nature, but there's a light in us, too. That light is composed of things like compassion, kindness, and the ability to make the world a better place; to make life in it more worth living. Maybe it's a divine light, I don't know. Maybe it's the light in the Jewish idea of the broken vessels, and gathering and cultivating that light is the act of tikkun olam--repairing the world. Maybe that light is what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of heaven is within. And maybe it's a happy accident? I don't know the answer, and I don't know that it matters. But I am pretty sure that humans have a choice between the darkness and the light inside of us. And I know which one we had better choose.