Saturday, November 26, 2011

Doublethink, religion, and the essential moral attitude

Being human means not being materialistic, even though one has to be materialistic from time to time.

One hears it all the time as an atheist: "How can you be moral?". Plenty of replies can assert or show by example how baselessness the accusation is, but still, what is behind it? There is something much deeper than a matter of divine command.. that if one does not accept the ten commandments as divine and absolute, one is utterly lawless. There is something more important going on.

A way into this issue came up for me in George Eliot's Middlemarch, which describes the Victorian hinterlands as almost expecting their doctors to be more or less irreligious, indeed doubting their competence if they flaunt great devotion.
"The Doctor was more than suspected of having no religion, but somehow Middlemarch tolerated this deficiency in him as if he had been a Lord Chancellor; indeed it is probable that his professional weight was the more believed in, the world-old association of cleverness with the evil principle being still potent in the minds even of lady-patients who had the strictest ideas of frilling and sentiment. It was perhaps this negation in the Doctor which made his neighbors call him hard-headed and dry-witted; conditions of texture which were also held favorable to the storing of judgments connected with drugs. At all events, it is certain that if any medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having very definite religious views, of being given to prayer, and of otherwise showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption against his medical skill."
How intriguing! Is there perhaps a spectrum of interest, from the material to the spiritual, over which people of different temperaments are arrayed and in accordance with which they take up their professions and roles in life?

I had a science teacher in school who shocked us by stating that the materials of our bodies, if bought from the chemical supply catalog, would amount to only about $14 dollars worth, mostly in the calcium, I believe.

What is our value as humans? That is the central question of morality. Whether we see value in others, or conversely de-value and de-humanize others, is morally fundamental. Kant expressed this in his categorical imperative, that one should never treat a human as an instrument but rather as an end- a being of intrinsic and high value. The revolutionary ideas of human rights, civil rights, and all men being created equal ... these are not read from the book of nature, but from our sentiments and ideals, properly cultivated.

They also form the essential ground of modern society, where personal dignity, fairness and due process from social structures like corporations and governments are taken for granted (or demanded). One could describe this view of humanity as enchanted, as humanistic, or as religious, depending on one's taste.

Obviously, various professions and lines of work militate against such a well-cultivated view. Medicine comes to mind, as does economics, banking, insurance, business in general, being a dictator, and criminal pursuits more or less psychopathic. Human life has to be put into the scale from time to time and weighed against other, finite considerations. Like money. Insurers deal with the worth of a human life. Economists attempt to value all sorts of pricelss goods, like musical performances, life-saving drugs, food, paintings. Doctors violate our dignity all the time, certainly for higher ends and with practiced discretion, but the tension can be acute.

The enchanted and materialist views are highly incommensurate. So we live double lives, seeing each other, our dreams, and self-expressions as priceless, even as on the other hand these things must be priced out or treated roughly rather frequently.

Religion has been the institution dedicated to the spiritual - the infinite measure of value and connection, elaborating cosmic-scale myths of human value that, at their best, cultivate a virtually infinite regard for others, including, in many traditions, non-human forms of life, even for nature and the cosmos at large.

This is the point on which atheism is found so abhorrent- that it not only disbelieves the myth, but is thought to disbelieve the point behind the myth, which is the painstakingly erected conviction of human value by which societies live or die- the ground of all morals. That is why conventionally religious people tend to worry less which kind of religion one subscribes to, (excepting fanatics completely lost in the haze of their parochial myth), and more that one has a narrative of ultimate and overwhelming meaning to hang on to in the midst of our otherwise often dehumanizing existence.

But there is something lacking in this analysis. Do our feelings of meaning and value arise out of the myths we tell each other, or does it really work the other way around, that these myths express feelings already present, which are activated by a simple smile, or a feather found by the side of the trail? The many scandals of religion say quite clearly that its arts may nudge, but surely don't force its believers into consistently more humanistic practices and values.

We have developed countless ways to share and cultivate pre-existing and natural feelings of value and meaning, from Beethoven's 9th to the Zen Haiku. Religion, traditionally understood, has been one of these arts, and, as any art form, has had its fads, trends, ups, and downs. But it makes the audacious claim above and beyond its cultivation of human value that it also possesses special philosophical truth and scientific, or even more annoyingly, transcendental trans-scientific truth, which to the atheist is its downfall.

The absurdities of god, heaven and hell, regarded not as artistic expressions of our more or less primitive negotiation with existential finality, but as actual, scientifically valid propositions ... well, it is hardly worth talking about, except that people do indeed, in this advanced age, talk about them, write about them ad infinitum, get doctorates for making stuff up about them, and more. Unfortunately, brute insistance on such antiquated notions can do more to suppress true spiritual and humane feeling than any amount of irreligion.

Herewith, an example in poetry from the far-out feminist new age calandar WeMoon.

The Rapture

In the beginning there was relation.
In the end there's fear and separation.
Just the toll our soul takes, it's the shaking away
from the only god there ever was, the MotherGod-Nature
Patriarchy makes us hate her. Declares war on earth,

She birthed us and fed us throughout the green vastness of time.
Ecstasy's wet nurse,
She opened her purse of DNA molecules, fabulous rituals.
For a million seasons she planted a billion reasons for life to live
She was makin' Time

Once upon anti-entropic cycles of biologic time
deathless star breath inhabits every cell, tells us
we are mollusks and chlorophyl, iron and carbon,
we're memories of wilderness and earth- as essential as biology.

Swirling through Time from the first cell floating on the first sea
at the first outbreath of the world, that breath still circles,
chanting Yes! god is a womin who just says Yes!
and we gotta give Life support saying Yes!
And maybe these death throes are really birth pains
And maybe this chaos is labor, not apocalypse
And maybe what we need to do is push! Push through her hips.
Push! Push! Push through. The end of patriarchy is my rapture
And I ain't goin nowhere but Here.

 Oak Chezar, 2006

  • Gazzaniga talks about brains, consciousness, punishment, and free will.
  • People in search of hope.
  • Occupy god!
  • Occupy needs to organize.
  • Cannibalism and rivers of blood- the first crusade.
  • Photo blog on Afghanistan.. considering the history, we are doing pretty well.
  • Just how does one exit the Euro?
  • The squid, driving Europe down the drain. Also .. running for president!
  • Is a second Credit Anstalt collapse coming?
  • Cheating- the dominant strategy in modern finance.
  • "I think our female desire is for emotional connection to transcend that inescapable loneliness of being a human being, and theirs is physical, so they go to these places where someone will touch them."
  • Economics quote of the week, Bill Mitchell, in a post that bears a full reading:
"The entrepreneurs are disappearing in American and being replaced by rapacious wealth shufflers who add nothing to productive capacity or general prosperity."
"Buying a government bond or a share in a listed company is not investing to an economist. Entrepreneurs invest, hedge funds rarely invest."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy Parquet!

A modest proposal for the NBA players locked out from the hardwood plantation.

As a casual basketball fan, I've been intrigued by the NBA lockout and contract negotiations. It shouldn't be a surprise that I side with the workers- the players, who have dissolved their union in order to attack the legality of the owner's lockout.

The players have been making 57% of the league's gross income. The owners claim that they have been losing money with this structure, and want more of the gross for themselves.

The players have certainly been doing their part, as the dramatic playoff and finals series last year showed. How have the owners been doing? Well, they say they have lost money. Which means that they aren't very good at math. They complain that free agency and lack of hard caps force them to over-pay / over-bid for players, as if someone had been holding guns to their heads. If the owners can't mount their infrastructure, marketing, dance troupes, and other activities with $1.6 billion, they should consider getting into other lines of business.

And when was the NBA supposed to be profitable enterprise anyhow? The whole point of having owners is that they are already rich and can give a little back to their communities (and massage their egos) by sponsoring contests of athletic skill that get endless free publicity and to give meaning to the otherwise meaningless schlumps that we are.

Perhaps the NBA has too many teams, and owners in smaller markets appear to struggle to keep their operations solvent. But the owners need to face up to this problem by revenue-sharing and philanthropy, not by taking it out of the player's hides. They are already a monopoly ... they should act like it.

Compared to the players, how much value do the owners add? Very, very little, in my estimation. The teams would be just as, or more, socially useful being publically owned or employee-owned. The current plutocratic ownership concept is a social construct that mirrors capitalist/philathropic relations elsewhere in the society, for very little reason or benefit, especially if the teams become profit centers rather than vanity centers. The fact that the owners can't properly manage a business monopoly and entrenched cultural institution hardly reflects well on them.

What I would recommend is that the players, now that they have disbanded from being part of the NBA structure, meet the lockout with a walkout. They should set up their own league and displace the NBA entirely. They should, in short, occupy the parquet themselves, as an employee-owned league. At first, they will be restricted to smaller venues and limited media, but I think in the age of twitter and youtube, they would gain the necessary buzz with ease, and become self-sustaining. The old franchises, like the ailing Warriors franchise that recently sold for a half-billion dollars, would consequently lose all value. If they gutted it out, the players would eventually be able to take over the old venues, including the classic Celtics parquet.

This conflict is just one small vignette in the larger economic narrative. The NBA owners clearly bought into the right-wing mindset that this would be a good time to crush unions and workers. The economic disaster that the 1% has authored has made them even more powerful over labor by way of extreme unemployment. But I'd suggest that the NBA owners ran into the buzz saw of the OWS counter-narrative, and the players have taken heart in a great deal of public support. The game is mostly mental, after all! The NBA is a uniquely worker-driven enterprise, with little rationale for capitalist ownership at all. The players may still cave, money managment perhaps not being their strong suit. But I think there is a better way, if they can hold out and boldly seize their future.

My suggestion for the new league name? HDL- Hoop Dreams League.

"The man who Mr. Obama asked to be his mentor when he joined the Senate was Joe Lieberman. He evidently gave Obama expert advice about how to raise funds from the financial class by delivering his liberal constituency to his Wall Street campaign contributors."
"Wall Street has orchestrated and lobbied for a rentier alliance whose wealth is growing at the expense of the economy at large. It is extractive, not productive."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Area blogger takes incoming plutocratic fire

Original editorial. Replying editorial.

I doubt further commentary is needed.

But later correspondents added some conservative echos.

Though, come to think of it, perhaps a link to a recent New Yorker cover would be in order:

And, just to keep things light, a Roz Chast cartoon may be helpful as well:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Travels and meetings of ancient humans

Australians branched from Out-of-Africans long before Europeans and Asians diverged.

An interesting caveat to the Out-of-Africa origin for modern humans is that perhaps 4% of our genomes apparently comes from archaic humans these modern African emigrants encountered in Europe and Asia- the Neaderthals and a recently discovered more eastern relative of the Neanderthals, the Denisovans of the Altai mountains, a bit south of Novosibirsk, of whom a couple of bones and DNA are known, but not much else.

Which parts of our genomes? Well, a recent paper claims that up to 60% of some modern immunological genes stem from these archaic genomes, suggesting that pathogens encountered outside Africa may have been novel and subjected emigrating humans to selective pressure that the resident proto-humans had already mastered, genetically speaking.

The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes are an interesting group in several ways. Their function is to expose small bits of pathogen-derived proteins that the leukocyte (an antigen presenting cell) has been chewing on on its outside surface, so that other parts of the immune system (like killer T-cells) can "read" what this first line of defense is seeing and responding to. It is a very elegant system, finely balanced between over-active auto-immunity and prompt action against foreign pathogens.

No single (HLA) protein is ideally suited to hold and display the large variety of foreign proteins that the immune system may encounter, so we have three: HLA-A, -B, and -C. These proteins are additionally highly variable through human populations and vary quickly with evolution, as the pathogens we meet change quickly as well. It is highly beneficial to have different alleles of each gene from one's parents (i.e., be heterozygous), and women are thought to be able subconsciously to detect whether the men they are mating with have different HLA alleles from themselves. Wow!

This kind of selection is called "balancing" selection, where the optimal genetic population structure is not one ideal allele of one gene, (i.e. the "perfect", or evolutionarily "best" gene), but a diversity of different alleles. This theme is likely to be highly significant in psychological characteristics as well as immunological ones.

At any rate, one research group recently used the available DNA sequences from Neanderthals and their cousins, the Denisovan archaic humans, to determine that some of their HLA alleles are not closely related to anything found in Africa today, and yet make up a substantial portion in many non-African human populations. Which is to say that humans today outside of Africa obtained significant immunological diversity from their mating with these archaic humans.

HLA-A 11(Denisovan) Up to 48% of populations centered on South China and Papua New Guinea.
HLA-B 73(Denisovan) Up to 4% of people in west Asia, centered on Afghanistan.
HLA-B 07:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 17% of people centered on Britain and Scandinavia.
HLA-B 51:01 (Neanderthal) Up to 18% of people centered on Eastern Turkey.
HLA-C 12:02 (Denisovan) Up to 11% of populations centered on Mumbai and Japan.
HLA-C 15(Denisovan) Up to 19% of populations centered on Pakistan and northern Australia.
HLA-C 7:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 30% of populations centered on Moscow and south China.
HLA-C 16:02 (Neanderthal) Up to 5% of populations centered on Iran.

Geographic distribution of one archaic HLA human allele.

Once the recent African origin of modern humans became clear, many other questions arose- how, when, where, and who? Upon leaving Africa, which groups went where and when? A second paper gives quantitative evidence, from one partial Australian aboriginal genome sequence, that this group split off long before the Europeans and other Asians separated.

Geographically, one would suspect that, like the Native Americans and Polynesians, Aboriginal Australians would be at the end of the line of human divergence, separating at very late times from nearby groups in Southern Asia (model A). Morphologically, however, Aboriginal Australians don't fit this template at all, having closer resemblances with Africans than with the geographically intervening groups such as the Polynesians (model B).

The genetics bear out the latter story. These researchers used a museum sample of Aboriginal hair, apparently to evade problems of genetic contamination with Europeans, to sequence about 60% of one genome. They also sequenced three Han Chinese genomes and of course had numerous other genomes to work with by this point (about 1,220 individual sets of snp data).

The data took the form of snps- single base pair alterations/mutations from the common sequence that can be used forensically to track lineages, since descendents share the alterations of their ancestors than those of non-ancestors. All this data (14,000 snp sites) was thrown into a statistical program that spat out expected rates of snp identities under various lineage models.

The numerical differences / output are impossible for a non-expert to comment on, but they claim high statistical significance for their result that model B beats model A by a long shot. They also estimate the time from African/Australian divergence at 2750 generations, or about 70,000 years ago (using a generation time of ~27 years, apparently). In contrast, the European and Asian lineages diverged less than half as long ago, about 30,000 years ago. Indeed, this second divergence would seem to be an entirely different dispersal event that may have swept previously resident Australian-lineage peoples from all areas of Asia other than the far reaches of Papua New Guinea and Australia which become isolated about this time by rising sea levels. (And the Aeta in the Philippines.)

The global map they offer is:

Lastly, these scientists are also very excited by the possible mixing of Neanderthal or Denisovan genomes with those of the future Australians. Interestingly, they find the same degree of Neanderthal mixing in their Australian genome as in European and Asian genomes, indicating that, rather than mating with the final Neanderthal holdouts in Southern Europe, the mixing we observe genetically took place soon after the first migrations out of Africa.

For the Denisovan DNA, they find higher amounts of mixture (unspecified, but probably ~4%) in their Australian genome than in virtually any other group, indicating that this early migration had especially close contact with these archaic humans.

It is fascinating to see our origins come into clearer focus through the analysis of new data. Old conflicts like the early (regional speciation) versus late out-of-Africa theories are now definitively resolved, finding a bit of truth in both, but mostly favoring the later out-of-Africa theory. The travels of our ancestors, while hardly tracked with GPS, are slightly less obscure, indicating that native Australians have, in the words of these authors, "one of the oldest continuous population histories outside sub-Saharan Africa today", dating back roughly 50,000 years.

"If a country or region has no power to devalue, and if it is not the beneficiary of a system of fiscal equalisation, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline leading, in the end, to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation."
  • And Krugman: "If you were part of the dialogue in the late 80s and early 90s, it became clear that the euro was best understood as a plot by Italian technocrats to get themselves German central bankers. This was not, it turns out, a good idea."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On moral subjectivity

Are moral truths objective? Are they even "truths"?

A recent New Yorker profile of Derek Parfit tapped into a broad and untypically theological theme that there must be something absolute about morals- something objective and fixed, a standard that we all know by some (maybe god-given) instinct and reach for or knowingly violate. A recent Philosophy bites podcast ventured into similar territory, with Paul Boghossian. (Here is a typical academic discussion.)

I'm no expert here, but very much take the opposite view, (most famously presented by Hume), that we come up with our morals subjectively, and communally by negotiation, ending up with characteristically human, but variable systems for entirely this-world reasons. The only hint of the absolute is game theory, which lends inescapable structure to our transactions, as it does to evolution more generally.

One interesting pursuit of philosophers of ethics (such as Parfit- or Rawls, or Singer, or Kant, or Plato) is the contruction of ideal moral systems founded on reason. For Rawls, reason says that we should build societies that treat everyone fairly, with the particular rule that in doing the design, we should assume that we would arrive into that society at a random position, not the position we currently hold, thus motivating author of such a system to be maximally impartial, just, and fair.
"He came up with what he called the Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universally willable, and not reasonably rejectable." - from the New Yorker profile of Parfit cited above.
Well, this certainly sounds great, but one has to ask: why? What makes reason come up with such schemes? What motivated Rawls to come up with this scheme, and what could possibly make it "right" instead of "wrong"? There have to be premises here on which reason operates, such as our desire to be treated fairly, to be free, to have the opportunity to fulfull our personal potential, and live as well as is practical. There has to be a point. All the relevant points are desires. They may be common desires, but they are not unversal desires. It is the problem of competing desires that creates the whole need for moral systems in the first place, and adjudicating among them can't possibly be the job of reason, in the end, though reason is certainly helpful in articulating our choices and forecasting their consequences. At any rate, it is human desire that justifies a "reasonable" or utilitarian system for getting them satisfied.

So the logic of morals as I see it is that we have desires & needs, and this leads to the creation of a moral system that satisfies them in the face of other people with their own, either complementary or competing desires. I find it extremely hard to see where absolutes enter into this logic. Humans may well have desires that are programmed by god. We have no idea. But even if so, it is from that programming that our premises for "reasonable" systems descend in practice, not from some deity telling us directly what is good and what to do (Biblical interpretation aside, which would truly be going down a rabbit hole). Indeed, some of the most interesting religious literature features people telling god how poorly he has behaved, and shaming him to do better.

One can certainly see the practical attraction of positing morals as absolute and god-given, especially one's own. But that is a mere con game if no one has evidence that his are any more or less god-given than those of others ... which is the position I think we are in.

  • Oxytocin or oxycontin? Morality and the mind.
  • Scott Atran on religion and atheists. A podcast telling atheists how hopeless their cause is.
  • Salon offers an Occupy manifesto.
  • Please consider transferring from your megabank.
  • On criticism and the truth illusion.
  • Crony capitalism kills. Government saves lives.
  • Compound interest trumps compound growth- one ratchet of wealth inequality.
  • Do you pay negative taxes?
  • Afghanistan needs a post-US economy. A functioning society would be nice, too.
  • Quote of the week, taking a moment away from economics to learn about higher education. From Science magazine, taken in turn from Teachers College Record, 114 (2012):
"Most students enter college aiming for a 4.0 GPA. Given that grading in American educational institutions is unregulated, how meaningful is a 4.0? Rojstaczer and Healy examined grade distributions from 200 American colleges and universities over the past 70 years. They report that movement away from the traditional bell-shaped grading curve began in the 1960s and 1970s in order to help students avoid the military draft. A continual rising of grades followed, without the accompaniment of increased student achievement. Graduation rates have remained largely static for decades, the literacy of graduates has declined, and college entrance exam scores of applicants have fallen. America's educational institutions have gradually created an illusion where excellence is widespread and failure is rare. In fact, “A” is now the most common grade. Efforts at grade regulation are controversial, but without grading oversight, either on a school-by-school or national basis, it is unlikely that meaningful grades will return to American education."