Friday, May 29, 2015

Saving Millions of Lives with this One Weird Trick

Inside of a Jail from the Spanish Inquisition.
I know what you're thinking. "Millions of lives? What is this guy talking about?! What trick could possibly do that?" I know, I was skeptical too, but don't click away just yet!

OK, enough ad talk. It just feels dirty. I couldn't resist the title, but my point is actually a pretty modest one, and I'll explain why below. Consider, if you will, the following questions:
  • George Washington died because his doctors thought bloodletting was good for you. What if there had been a way to prevent that?
  • Thousands of people suspected of being witches or even werewolves were once hanged and burned at the stake. What if that could have been avoided?
  • Consider the Aztecs. They used to to cut people's hearts out to keep the gods happy and the sun from falling out of the sky. Was that really necessary?
  • And then think about people right here in the United States. They once enslaved millions of Africans, and justified it (in part) by saying that Africans were the descendants of Ham; cursed by Noah to a life of servitude. What might have prevented that attitude?
Could there really be a simple "trick" to keep this kind of thing from happening? What if didn't just prevent religious violence, superstitious savagery, and bad medical practices, but other kinds of needless suffering too? What if it could have prevented horrors fueled by overconfident and violent secular ideologies like Jacobinism, Nazism, and Stalinism?

Surely no "weird trick" could do that, right? Actually, I honestly think it could. Consider what would happen if people lived according to this simple rule:

If you don't have overwhelming, undeniable evidence that your beliefs are true, never hurt anyone because of them.*

In other words, when your beliefs tell you to do something that could hurt or kill people, ask yourself: "Do I really know this is true? What's my evidence? Can I actually prove it, the way you can prove the Pythagorean Theorem, or that the moon is made of rocks?" If not, then don't do it! When in doubt--and there's almost always doubt--don't hurt anybody or impose upon their happiness. If the implementation of someone's belief puts lives or happiness at stake, then the burden of proof is on the believer, and it's a pretty enormous burden.

That's especially true considering that it's extremely easy to be wrong. That's why this proposal is actually modest: it's based on deep intellectual humility; on knowing you might be wrong. After all, being wrong is the rule in history, not the exception. That's why evidence is crucial. People have been tragically wrong about all kinds of things, from prehistoric human sacrifices to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Better safe than sorry.

Imagine if the Aztecs had said, "Wait, what's the actual evidence that the sun won't come up if we stop ripping people's hearts out? Have we actually tested this idea? What if we went a year without doing it, and see if the sun comes up anyway?"

Think of how many horrible deaths that would have prevented if they had questioned whether they "just knew" the sun would stop coming up.

Imagine if the doctors who accidentally killed George Washington had known how to do controlled experiments, and actually tested to see whether bloodletting was helpful or harmful, instead of relying on tradition and hearsay? What if the people hanging "witches" in Salem had thought, "Whoa whoa whoa...can we prove she's in league with the Devil? Come to think of it, have I ever actually seen the Devil?" What if slave owners had said, "Hold on. How do I actually know any of this stuff about the curse of Ham? Sure, it's written in the Bible, but anybody can write something down. What if it's a bad interpretation, or it never even happened at all?"

We're imagining what might have been, and that might seem like an idle exercise, but it isn't, because the principle doesn't just apply to the past. It applies to the present and the future, too. People are dying over dubious beliefs right now. Children are dying around the world because their parents would rather rely on faith healing than real, evidence-based medicine. People aren't vaccinating their kids, and they're basing that decision on discredited studies and vague appeals to what's natural, not on real scientific evidence. They're not just putting their kids at risk--they're putting us all at risk.

Or consider how questionable religious convictions** still shape global politics. George W. Bush seems to have believed that God was telling him to invade Iraq. In retrospect, he was surely mistaken. Otherwise surely things would have gone better, right? He shouldn't have been so sure about what God wanted. What if he had thought, "Do I really know God wants me to invade Iraq? Can I prove it? Am I sure enough to bet hundreds of thousands of other people's lives on it?"

Of course, the kind of primitive impulses that got heretics and "witches" burned at the stake are still going on today. ISIS is doing that kind of thing right now, and it's as savage as anything that ever happened during the Middle Ages. Dogma-driven barbarism isn't confined to the past, unfortunately.

So, while it may sound insanely grandiose to claim that this principle could save millions of lives, it really isn't. First, it's not my idea anyway--it's been suggested many times before. Second, it's really quite modest--it simply recognizes the fallibility of human understanding. Third, it really could save all those lives, and not just right now, but in the future. The problem, of course, is implementing it. The suggestion is simple, but getting people to actually do it isn't. People have gotten a little less willing to kill for their unproven beliefs in recent decades, but it's still a pretty strong tendency. Montaigne once said, "It is taking one's conjectures rather seriously to roast someone alive for them." Plenty of people still take their conjectures every bit that seriously.

And that's just what they are: conjectures. They aren't proven, and many of them are just flat wrong. That's the thing: it's so very easy to be wrong. People do it all the time. They're wrong more than right, and have been throughout history. That's why, when people's lives and happiness are at stake, it's best to err on the side of caution. None of us are smart enough to bet our beliefs against other people's lives.


*Of course, a good broader rule would be: Try not to hurt anybody because of any belief, true or not. I mean, I know the Earth is round, but I'm not going to punch somebody in the nose if they insist it's flat. But I can imagine some situations where a provable belief could require that people be hurt or killed. If there were an airliner, full of innocent people, and you had undeniable evidence it was carrying an atomic bomb toward a major city, it might be justified to shoot it down. It would never be justifiable if you think God told you there's a bomb, or if your horoscope made you think there was a bomb, etc. You need hard, physical evidence. A feeling of certainty won't cut it. People are constantly feeling certain about all kinds of things they're wrong about.

** I don't mean to imply that religion only causes people to do hurtful things. If often does, but it also causes them to do great things. Think of how many hospitals and homeless shelters have been founded by religious people. It's conceivable that someone might do good things because of a false belief. I think that probably happens all the time. But so what? If it's helpful, and not harmful, there's no pressing need to insist on absolute proof before acting. If you're wrong, you've still done a good thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letter to a Curious Kid

Hey kid,

I'm one of the librarians, and I noticed that humongous stack of books you were hauling out today. It reminded me of somebody: me. I did that too when I was your age, so I know how you feel. You know how sometimes you get so interested in something that you can hardly stop thinking about it? Or you look through the books in the library, and you can't even believe how much cool stuff there is to learn? That was me. In fact, it still is. I was always amazed what a big, incredible world it is.

But I don't have to tell you  how incredible the world is. At your age, nothing could be more obvious. Kids your age notice things. Like, did you ever look at the squirrels outside the library, and notice how they have little hands like people? Maybe you wondered what it would be like to jump though the trees like they do? I know I did. Or maybe you've seen how the pigeons have little rainbows on their necks that change colors in the sun, and you wondered what caused it? Did you ever go out and stare up at the stars until you feel like you're going to fall over backwards wondering how far away they are?  Or you totally drive your parents crazy asking "why" and "how" all day long? Yep, that's the kind of kid I was, too.

So I remember why you bring that big stack of books home from the library. There's something you're just burning to learn more about. And maybe some other kids don't get this, but times like that are when you really feel alive: when you're looking up at those stars, or reading those books, or wondering about those questions you keep having. Sometimes it feels like your brain's on fire, and you'll never run out of fuel, because the whole universe is made of it.

So yeah, you know how amazing the world is, and how much fun it is to think about it. But there's one thing you may not know, and it's something you're gonna have to figure out how to deal with. The thing is, not everybody sees things the way you do. Believe it or not, all that stuff that's seems so amazing to you seems totally boring to some people. They just don't get it, and some of them are going to give you a hard time about it.

Actually, I bet you know some people like that already. I guess I'm just warning you that you'll run into a lot more of them. Especially when you're a teenager--that's when people really get like that. They start spending all their time thinking about being cool and fitting in with everybody. I did it, too--I didn't think I would, but I did. Things get real weird for a few years. Everybody starts forming little groups where they all dress the same, and talk the same, and walk the same, and listen to the same music (music turns into a really big deal then, for some reason). Everybody starts looking in the mirror too much, and worrying about whether they're cool enough, or tough enough, or pretty enough.

You'll probably do it too, and that's fine. But you have careful not to overdo it. Here's why: if you worry too much about what other people think, you can forget how to be yourself. You can forget something you know right now: how amazing and interesting the world is. You might think there's no way that could ever happen, but it can. Believe me, it happened to me for a while.

You might think it's easy not to worry about what other people think, but it isn't. Some people can really give you a hard time. You probably know that already, too. Maybe some of the other kids laugh at you when you talk about something you've been reading about. Maybe somebody's already called you a geek when they saw you reading one of those books. I wish I could say they'll grow out of it soon, but they won't. A lot of kids get worse about it during those weird teenage years. They'll make fun of you if you talk about stuff they don't consider cool, or if you don't act or dress just like they do. You just have to try not to worry about it too much. I don't mean you should be a know-it-all, or act weird just to annoy people, or try to talk to people all the time about stuff they don't care about. That's just rude. I just mean you shouldn't ever let them make you feel ashamed for wanting to think and learn about things.

Most of them will get over it eventually, but a few of them won't. You'll meet people all your life who don't understand why you like to think about the stuff you do. Believe it or not, even some grownups get embarrassed by people who like to talk about books, or science, or nature. I know it sounds crazy, but there are actually grownups who worry about what's cool and what's geeky. So there will always be people who'll say you're weird for thinking about why galaxies look like whirlpools, or whether different people see colors the same way, or whatever other "weird" thing you like to think about. But here's what you have to remember. You're actually not the weird one. They are, even if they outnumber you. That's because it isn't weird to be fascinated by this totally incredible universe. It's weird not to be, and I hope you always remember that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How a Valley Became a Mesa, and Why a River Runs Through It

The town of Golden, Colorado is right next to the foothills of the Rockies, but the most striking feature there is a mesa called Table Mountain. It's one of those utterly western-looking landmarks you would never find in the east. You almost expect to see John Wayne riding past it. Table Mountain actually has two parts--North and South Table Mountain--and the famous Coors brewing company sits in the canyon between them. Here's a picture of North Table Mountain from the foothills above Golden. You can see part of South Table Mountain on the right.

Photo by Ross Mays, from Lookout Mountain
I love hiking on top of Table Mountain, because it's like an grassy oasis in the middle of the Denver sprawl. It's surprisingly expansive once you get up there, and the view of the Front Range is spectacular.There's also another view of Table Mountain that's even more impressive, at least to me, but it's a view you have to use your imagination to see. To see what I mean, take a look at the picture below.

Photo by Ross Mays, ancient landscape drawing based on Drewes, 2008 (see that paper for a more accurate diagram)
This is a geologist's view of Table Mountain (or actually an amateur's version a geologist's view). One of the great things about geology is that it lets you see multiple landscapes all at once. You see the modern landscape, of course, but in your mind's eye you also see older landscapes superimposed on it. It's like looking at the world through goggles that let you see the contours of past worlds, and tell you how they gave rise to today's landscapes.

So what's going on in these past worlds? What's up with those volcanoes? The picture shows North and South Table Mountain from the south, from the slopes of another hill called Green Mountain. The sketches show ancient landscape features from different times in the past. They didn't necessarily exist at the same time.

To see how these ancient landscape gave rise to the modern one, it helps to start by considering the ridges of upturned rock you can find north and south of Golden, at places like Red Rocks and Dinosaur Ridge. In the picture below, you can see some of those layers where I-70 cuts though the Dakota Hogback just south of Golden (notice the man on top, walking forward in time from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous Period.)

The upturned rocks along the Front Range are sedimentary layers dating from 300 million years ago (at places like Red Rocks) to about 70 million years ago. Like all sedimentary rocks, they were more or less flat when they were laid down. They're still flat to the east of the Rockies, and buried under younger rocks. Along the Front Range, though, they turn sharply upward and emerge from deep underground. That's no coincidence, of course--the Rockies are what pushed them upright, when they first started to rise about 70 million years ago. What we don't see today, except through geology goggles, is that the same rock layers extended across the rising Rockies. These layers were pushed high in the air, where they began to erode away, exposing the harder, older granite and metamorphic rock that makes up most of the Front Range today (except for a few remnants of sedimentary rock, stranded high in the mountains).

All these geologic upheavals caused magma to rise from deep in the earth, creating the Cretaceous volcanoes sketched on the far left in the second image. These volcanoes soon began eroding, too. Together with eroded the sedimentary rocks lifted by the Rockies, they formed a layer of coarse gravel at the base of the new mountains. This gravelly rock now forms the bottom layers of Table Mountain. The volcanoes are gone, but you can pick up a piece of volcanic gravel--rounded by ancient rivers--and know they were once there. Some of the last dinosaurs once walked on this gravel as it rose, including a T rex that left a tooth behind on the future flanks of the mountain.

When that T rex was alive, though, Table Mountain didn't exist. In fact, Table Mountain began as a valley, in the Paleocene Epoch, just after the extinction of the dinosaurs.* In those days there was another volcano near the north end of a shallow valley where Table Mountain is now. It erupted four times over a period of about a million years, sending lava flows down the valley. Over time this lava solidified into a kind of volcanic rock called shoshonite. The volcano mostly eroded away, leaving a remnant known as Ralston Dike, which you can still see north of Table Mountain. The Rockies kept eroding onto the plains, and more layers of sediment covered the lava flows. Finally, the mountains were buried so thoroughly in their own debris that they were little more than hills projecting above the ancient plains.

So how did the Rockies come back, and how did a valley become Table Mountain? Like this: Just a few million years ago (the exact time seems to be controversial) complex tectonic forces lifted the entire region about a mile into the air. That's why Denver is a mile high today, even though it's on the plains. This regional uplift caused rivers coming out of the mountains to begin cutting downward, carving the deep canyons along the modern Front Range and stripping away the top layers of debris on the plains near the mountains.** This great event--still going on today--is known as the Exhumation of the Rockies.

As the great plains eroded, the sediments above and around the Table Rock lava flows eroded along with them. But when the hard volcanic rocks were finally exposed, they resisted erosion and protected the soft layers of rock below them. That's how mesas form--a hard layer of caprock on top keeps the rocks underneath from eroding. The valley had become a mesa, capped by lava flows from an ancient volcano.

But how did the mesa become two mesas, with a river (Clear Creek) running between them? Why didn't the creek go around the mountain, instead of straight through it? The answer is that Clear Creek once flowed across the old high plains, above the lava flows of Table Mountain. As it started cutting down into the plains, it encountered the hard volcanic rock. By this time, though, its course was already set--it was trapped within its own channel. So it kept on cutting downward, though the hard lava flows. Along with other streams in the area, it kept eroding the old high plains surface. Eventually, Table Mountain emerged from under the debris, with a river running though it, and an amazing story to tell.


Table Mountain Shoshonite Porphyry Lava Flows and Their Vents,Golden, Colorado / Harald Drewes, 2008

Geology Underfoot Along Colorado's Front Range / Lon Abbott and Terri Cook

*The first epoch of the Cenozoic Period. The Mesozoic ended with the extinction of the dinosaurs. The North American boundary between these two time periods (known as the K-T Boundary) was first identified on South Table Mountain.

** There are still remnants of these ancient high plains. Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming follows one of them, called The Gangplank. This old surface of the ancient plains rises almost to the top of the mountains, which is why the interstate was built there. This is also where the first transcontinental railroad crossed the Rockies.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Is it a Good Idea to Base Morality on the Supernatural?

I had just asked the rhetorical question—which I often ask during my talk on the evolution of morality and how to be good without God—“What would you do if there were no God? Would you rape, steal, and murder?” Naturally people agree that they wouldn’t, but in this instance the man said he was pretty sure that if he decided that there were no God he would do just that. I told him Jesus loves him and has a plan for his life and future. - Michael Shermer
I'm always amazed, and slightly alarmed, when I hear people say that if there were no God there would be no reason to be moral. I saw that sentiment expressed today in an online thread. I had said I don't think laws should be based on moral codes that are solely religious in origin. Somebody then asked me:
So, why are you against pedophilia? If you are going to throw out the common moral standard based on Judeo-Christian values, I'd really like to see how you justify anything being wrong.
I thought, "You honestly can't think of any reason pedophilia might be wrong besides 'God doesn't like it'? That scares me." Here's a guy who apparently can't imagine morality without religion, and Judeo-Christian religion in particular. Similar attitudes may explain why some people, such as Phil Robertson, hear others say, "I don't believe in God" and assume they must also mean, "I don't believe in right and wrong."

Anyway, when people tell me they can't see why anyone should be moral if there's no God, I react like Michael Shermer, thinking, "Then I really hope you keep believing in God." It freaks me right out. The only reason it doesn't give me a panic attack is that I don't really believe most people would start stealing and murdering if they stopped believing in God. I'm convinced most of them would go on being the decent people they are. Still, I'm struck by often people say that if there were no God--if morality weren't in some way written into the plan of the universe--then we would have no "real" foundation for morality.

My view is the exact opposite. As far as I'm concerned, what would really make the foundations of morality shaky is for them to be dependent on the existence of God. I believe that for a few reasons*, but the most important is this: We don't know that God exists. What if it turns out he doesn't? Then morality truly wouldn't have any foundation. If most people's morality depends on the proposition that God exists, and they decide he doesn't, then they will see no reason to be moral, and we're headed for Mad Max world.**

And let's face it: God's existence is notoriously hard to prove. The universe is full of things--rocks, trees, stars, IBM, sadness, lying--that every sane person agrees exist. These things are unambiguously perceptible in a way people can agree on. God is not one of those things. We don't have actual, unambiguous evidence that he exists. You can't point a telescope at him and say, "See, there he is."

People who say morality depends on God are basing morality on the existence of an invisible, hypothetical, supernatural being. (Notice I didn't say non-existent--I don't know whether he exists or not). So when I hear them say they can't take any moral idea seriously that isn't based on God, what I hear is, "I can't take any moral idea seriously unless it's grounded in the supernatural." Maybe that's not the most charitable interpretation, but it gives an idea of how shaky it seems to me. People don't like to hear God compared to supernatural phenomena like ghosts, or auras, or Zeus, but I've seen no more physical evidence he exists than there I have that ghosts do. (If you disagree, I have a favor to ask: Don't get mad. Show me the evidence that I'm wrong. If it's convincing, I'll change my mind.)

So, if God's existence isn't a firm foundation for morality, what is? I think it helps to start by asking the following question: In what kind of universe would there be no need for morality? The answer, I think, is a universe where there are no conscious beings to value things, to experience pleasure and pain, to have hopes and dreams, and so on. If the universe were nothing but blind matter going about its business, there would be no need for one part of it to give moral consideration to another part. None of the parts care. The fact that some parts do care, and feel and hope and suffer and so on, is the reason that morality is necessary.

So how about this as a foundation for morality: the recognition that other beings have experiences, wishes, and emotions, just like we do? How about recognizing that their happiness, hopes and suffering are just as real to them as ours are to us? How about the idea that if something hurts another for no reason, then it's likely to be wrong? Or the idea that if it helps another(and doesn't cause wider harm) then it's probably good? Recognizing that other beings' experiences (I say "beings" because I think many animals qualify) are just as real as our own is the first step in acting morally. Once I recognize that the lives and experiences of others are just as important to them as mine are to me, I see that I can't reasonably expect others to treat me morally if I don't do the same for them. What makes me special?

That may seem simple enough, but nothing is that simple--especially moral questions. For one thing, you can't actually prove that someone else's experiences are as real to them as yours are to you. For all I really know, everyone on Earth but me is an automaton. Maybe everybody but me has no more sentience than a Roomba? Maybe, but I don't believe it for a minute. I can't prove that others have experiences and desires just as vivid as mine, but it's a reasonable assumption...if I have them, why wouldn't they?

Another problem with basing morality on the consciousness and preferences of other beings is that it's not that straightforward in practice. The kind of simplistic utilitarianism that says we should maximize pleasure and minimize pain has big problems. For example, it suggests that it's ethically right to kill one healthy person and use their organs to save the lives of five sick people. I don't know about you, but something seems wrong with that to me.

There are other issues with pure utilitarianism, too, but I'm not advocating pure utilitarianism, and I'm not saying that respect for the experience of others is the last word on morality. I'm saying it's the first word. It's a good start, and it's based on something truly tangible. It's not as tangible as a brick wall, but it's much more tangible than the claim that morality is built into the universe in some unspecified way, or that it flows from a hypothetical, invisible being. I am pretty sure others have the same kind of hopes, desires, pains, and pleasures that I do. I'm much less certain that there's a God, or that morality depends on his existence.


* Among them the highly questionable ethics in the Bible (killing homosexuals, adulterers, and disobedient children, dashing Babylonian children's heads against rocks, women being submissive to men, treating the mentally ill as though they were possessed by demons, and and so on), and the Euthyphro Dilemma, which I've talked about elsewhere.

** One thing I'm aware of, and may need to think about more, is that I'm coming very close to the consequentialist fallacy here. If I said, "If people believe morality is based on God, and they stopped believing in God, then the consequences would be bad. Therefore, morality is not based on God. That's a fallacy--what comes after the word "therefore" in that claim doesn't follow from what comes before it. The fact that a claim would have bad consequences if true doesn't mean it isn't true. But this isn't exactly what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that, while the consequences of basing morality on God might be bad, it actually doesn't make sense to base it on God anyway--consequences aside. What makes sense is to base it on recognizing other people's experience as being just as real as mine. If there were no consciousness, feelings, etc., in the universe, there would be no need for morality.