Saturday, April 26, 2014

Primitive Prozac: Religion as Anxiolytic Therapy

Or- I'd rather have a frontal theophany than a bottle in front of me.

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions." -Karl Marx
Marx, unfortunately, lived before modern neuropharmacology. But whether the blunderbuss of opium, (or alcohol), or the scalpel of prozac, we are clearly in need of something to get us through the night, and self-medicate in all cultures and all times. Religion seems to be one such universal method of relieving anxiety, and comes up for a chapter in Jared Diamond's book, The World Until Yesterday, titled "What electric eels tell us about the evolution of Religion". To boil it down brutally, Diamond, wearing his sober sociologist's hat, tabulates seven functions of religion, dialed to various levels among different religions, cultures, and times:
  • Supernatural explanation
  • Defusing anxiety through ritual
  • Providing comfort about pains and death
  • Standardized organization
  • Preaching political obedience
  • Moral codes of behavior towards strangers
  • Justification of wars

What I realized in reading this is that most of these points, and probably the most significant ones, can be collected under the head of antianxiety medication, individual and collective. We are a very anxious species. Our great intelligence and ability to model past, future, and social structures, etc. has also granted us an expanded, indeed infinite, ability to worry and fret. Squirrels seem anxious too, so this is not a new phenomenon. Chimpanzees soothe each other mostly via grooming, something we seem to have given up in favor of language and social interaction, of which religion is perhaps the most powerful form. Part of our transition from prey to predator species may have been finding some way to calm down, which in our case became, in part, religious practice, rather than the more biological alterations that allow other top predators, like lions and raptors, to seem so calm and unruffled.

Not knowing something makes us anxious, to the point that we habitually make up stories to fill the gap. There seems to be some kind of law against telling a child "I don't know" in response to all those natural, and pressing, questions. So we make up stories. This can be the fount of the greatest art- a project of self-expression and self-understanding, in the guise of an origin story, story of a constellation, of a deity, etc. But still, it betrays an odd kind of anxiety about gaps in our knowledge- an anxiety that has led us to science as well.

Other people make us anxious, not knowing what is in their minds, especially their intentions toward us. Disease makes us anxious, especially back when next to nothing was know about it. Death makes us extremely anxious, being the end of all we hold dear, and typically involving unspeakable suffering besides. We are existentially anxious, about what it all means, where it all came from, who is in charge, what our life is worth. Similarly, the future makes us anxious. It is a big unknown. Historically, many people didn't even take the sun rising again for granted, but developed elaborate rituals and theologies to help that process along.

All these sources of anxiety can be addressed through religion. It explains the unknown, at least sufficiently to allay naive anxieties about cosmic origins, natural surroundings, biology, and disease. Perhaps it assures us about a destination after death, and furnishes a father figure who provides both ultimate justice and meaning to life. It also relieves an enormous amount of social anxiety, providing us with a "gang" to hang with, with some hierarchical structure and rules of interaction, which relieve the anxiety of social chaos. The meaning that religion provides allays at once our social, existential, and intellectual anxieties. Indeed, Diamond's last point about justifying wars can be framed in a similar way. What keeps us typically from making war is prudence and anxiety about the future, about losing, and about the personal price paid by some, even if the group wins. Religion can wipe away each of those anxities by painting a glorious picture of the cause, the boons to be gained, and glory falling especially to those who die in such a cause.

This is hardly a new observation, but seems insufficiently appreciated by those trapped in the is-religion-true (nor not) debate. Not being remotely true hardly makes it useless or pointless.

For instance, from book on religions of antiquity:
"During the process of acculturation from childhood, this heritage is transmitted to all members of a community who absorb is, and are thus enabled to sidestep the burdensome intellectual challenge of developing a personal or private explanation of the order of the real and its counterpart in the imaginaire. Myths constitute the vehicle of transmission of this collective account, which undergoes adjustment corresponding to changes in the objective conditions of the historico-social formation in which they are elaborated. It this becomes a cultural mediator of great importance, offering a shifting form of explanation that allows members of the community to face, without excessive anxiety, a reality that might otherwise appear chaotic and uncontrollable." - Jaime Alvar Ezquerra, in "Romanizing Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the Cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras" 2008.

False as it must necessarily be, the model works just so long as most members don't question it too hard. Like the classic answer about the turtle that holds up the world... "It's turtles all the way down!" Beyond such a superficial level (which, bless them, drives theologians to such contortions), the content hardly matters at all. It is the psychological lifting of weight that is so valuable. Problems only arise when people take their myth too seriously, insisting on a truth that isn't there. A natural corollary is the rise of modern religious toleration (an echo of the polytheistic all-for-on and one-for-all model in Western antiquity). For if deep down, we realize that religions give us a therapeutic service, then the flavor doesn't make much difference, for all their various and impossible claims to truth. It is very similar to the situation of modern psychology, which has realized that talk therapy is highly beneficial, pretty much regardless of the Freudian / Jungian / Dynamic / Cognitive / etc. forms it may take. It works because it throws a lifeline of structured, social, soothing calm.

What is a modern person to do? Our intellectual insecurity has been resolved in vast degree by diligent intellectual practice, i.e. by science and other forms of disciplined inquiry. Our physical insecurities have been resolved in large measure by just government and economic prosperity (and lots of oil!) No one in today's developed world should go hungry, or be crushed under political oppression, let alone be attacked by wild animals. Prosperity has also brought great social freedom, though not solidarity or communalism. Quite the opposite- it has given us atomization and anomie.

Psychotherapy addresses, in some degree, this small facet of the anxieties that religion treats so comprehensively, not touching issues of the collective at all, for example. Prozac is an even less productive solution, relieving the physiological symptom, but not addressing either individual or collective problems, assuming that they are problems, and that social engagement in a religious-style community helps solve them. For our anxieties are not just hindrances, they have a purpose, (at normal levels), driving us to plan for the future, form protective and productive communities, learn all we can about our environment, etc.

So, social isolation, personal meaning, and death remain significant unresolved forms of anxiety for which religion remains a functional prescription, in competition with prozac and other aids. Ritual, for instance, whatever its content, provides a socially calming and organizing activity that has largely been lost to non-religious modern people. We see pieces of ritual in musical concerts, political events, newspaper reading, school attendance, business formalities, even facebook obsessing. But none is as powerful as the religious practice that whips it all together into a compelling Sunday morning multi-ritual production of cultural connection and cosmic import.

And meaning? The modern worldview, for all its anxiety-allaying efforts in other spheres, denies intrinsic meaning in this life, while denying future lives altogether. We have no more meaning than a fly that lives its day in the sun, or a grain of sand. We naturally adopt inborn meanings, through our family and social lives, and our competitive natures. And we create other meanings in profusion, high and low, including that confection of meaning called religion. Religion has been the exercise above all others that assures us of some ultimate reason for it all, and has been exceedingly difficult to replace in that respect. The only answer, in refusing all false meanings and empty faiths, is an astringently stoic / existentialist philosophy that is perhaps the single strongest characteristic of modernity.

  • But others wonder whether it isn't just peer pressure and indoctrination.
  • Calculus was once heretical.
  • Atheists have mystical experiences too. But they interpret them skeptically.
  • American atomization, anxiety, and anomie.
  • Brain injury can give, as well as take away.
  • Sado-monetarism, Swedish edition.
  • The mortgage system is still rife with fraud and lawlessness.
  • Korean ferry disaster is another story of corruption and revolving doors.
  • Some successful government programs. 
  • But we have not been keeping up with the highway fund / gas tax.
  • Why does "freedom" not extend to all users of the internet?
  • Colbert does Cliven. Plus, more on guns.
  • Wolf on money: nationalize it!
  • Solow on Piketty. "This is Piketty’s main point, and his new and powerful contribution to an old topic: as long as the rate of return exceeds the rate of growth, the income and wealth of the rich will grow faster than the typical income from work."
  • Doutat on Piketty.
  • And for remarkable disclosure (and self-disclosure)... WSJ on Piketty. After explaining how CEOs certainly don't deserve what they are paid, (what a foolish theory that would be!), but are the fortunate cronies of crony capitalism, they conclude:
"A more useful prescription, long before anyone heard of Mr. Piketty and his gloomy novelties, is the prescription promoted by boring-old Social Security reformers. They've long argued for turning Social Security into a system of real savings, via private accounts, so every American can become a capital owner and benefit from [CEO] Mr. Mulally's incentives too."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Big Brain Domain

The mystery of protein domain DUF1220 and brain evolution.

Someday, the human genome will be an open book to us, telling us how we develop from an egg, and what is likely to go wrong along the way. But for now, we know only glimmers about it. We know all the letters of the DNA code, but frustratingly little about what they mean. An example is the fascinating story of DUF1220.

DUF stands for "domain of unknown function". DUF1220 is family of brief protein sequences, one example of which is "EKVQELYAPREVQKAEEKEVPEDSLEECAITCSNSHHPCESNQPYGNTRITFEEDQVDSTLID". This uses a code where each amino acid constituent of a protein is one letter. A slightly more sensible way to look at it is put several family members in a linup, as it were:

Alignment of 10 family members of DUF1220, with most conserved amino acids in red, and hydrophobic amino acids marked with green bars.

Each member of the domain family is in its own row, lined up with the others as best a computer can do. The well-aligned positions, with mostly the same amino acid, are in red, and less so are blue. I have added a few green markers above to show which positions are hydrophobic, carrying amino acids like F, V, I, L, A, W, Y, and the like, which tend to lie inside folded proteins like oil drops form in water. So, by my own speculation, it looks a bit like an alpha helix, with regular hydrophobic residues lying at roughly seven or so amino acid intervals, appropriate to one face of the helix lying against the interior of a protein while the rest is exposed to the outside, to water and other molecules.

One human gene is 3768 amino acids long and contains 43 iterations of the DUF1220 domain, marked in pink.

But this is very conventional. Many, many proteins take on this kind of structure. Going up a level to the genes, we see that in one gene carrying this domain, it occurs tandemly 43 times. Wow! What could be going on? Such a long protein, singing the same song, over and over again. This is common in structural types of proteins, less so in enzymatic or regulatory proteins, but who knows? An ancestor of this family seems to be involved in regulation of protein phosphorylation and activity, but very little else is known about what it might be doing in any physical way.

Up one more level, to the genome, we see that there is a family of ~23 of such genes in humans, mostly on chromosome 1, which carry various numbers of this small domain, adding up to about 277 copies in all of this domain in the genome. Why so many genes, why so many approximate copies of this domain? This kind of amplification tends to be a quick and dirty solution on the part of evolutionary processes, to get more of some beneficial gene product. Later on, once the regulation of some of these genes is optimally tuned up, extra copies can be left to die as pseudogenes and deletions.

Going up to the evolutionary level, we find that there has been a dramatic expansion of these genes and this domain over the mammalian and especially primate lineage, from none in birds, to a few in rodents, to a hundred in monkeys, to 290 copies of DUF1220 in humans:

Evolutionary history of DUF1220-containing genomes. Years before present are listed up the middle line.  Numbers of DF1220 domains are listed at right. The miscellaneous notes in the tree refer to named sub-families of DUF1220-containing genes, and a few other related issues.

There seems to be a strong correlation of duplications of this gene or segments of it with closeness to humans in the primate lineage, which would make sense if this gene, say, had something to do with generating bigger and better brains.

And that is something we do know something about, since mutations in these genes come up in a variety of disease conditions, which is to say, human phenotypes. A recent paper found that deletions in this chromosome 1 family lead to microcephaly (small head), while duplications lead to macrocephaly (big head) birth defects. Other mutations among these genes lead to autism and other mental disorders.

"... we have shown that of all the 1q21 genes examined (n 1 ⁄ 453 [subjects]), only DUF1220 sequences exhibit a significant direct correlation with brain-size phenotypes in both pathological and normal human populations. Although we provide data implicating the loss of DUF1220 copy number in 1q21-associated microcephaly, the data are also fully consistent with the view that increases in DUF1220 copy number underlie 1q21-associated macrocephaly." 
"Twelve genomic diseases have been linked to CNVs [copy number variations] in the 1q21.1- 1q21.1 region. They ... include autism, congenital heart disease, congenital anomaly of the kidney and urinary tract, epilepsy, intellectual disability, intermittent explosive disorder, macrocephaly, Mayer-Rokitansky-K├╝ster-Hauser syndrome, microcephaly, neuroblastoma, schizophrenia, and thrombocytopenia-absent-radius syndrome." 
"However, multivariate linear regression detected a linear increase in CON1 [a sub-famliy of the genes carrying DUF1220] dosage that was progressively associated with increasing severity of each of the three primary symptoms associated with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] as measured by the ADI-R. With each additional copy of CON1, Social Diagnostic Score increased on average 0.25 points (SE 0.11 p = 0.021), Communicative Diagnostic Score increased 0.18 points (SE 0.08 p = 0.030) and Repetitive Behavior Diagnostic Score increased 0.10 points (SE = 0.05 p = 0.047)." 
"Given our recent data linking DUF1220 with neural stem cell proliferation (J. Keeney, submitted), this effect could be related to the timing and rate of neurogenesis, such that too many neurons produced too quickly may result in an overabundance of poorly connected neurons. This initial overabundance would in turn inhibit the formation of long distance projection neurons. This process, resulting from (or exacerbated by) CON1 dosage increase, could in turn lead to the excess of localized versus long-distance connectivity seen in individuals with ASD [autism spectrum disorders]."

These clues drive a great deal of interest in finding out what these genes and their encoded proteins do. They have apparently been under intense positive selection (for accumulating duplications and variants) over recent evolutionary time. And this is despite setting up a fraught situation in the genome, since repetitive sequences are more prone to rearragements and other errors, as seen in the various genetic defects located at the 1q-21 chromosomal position. They are clearly part of what makes us human, and diverse as humans.

  • Doubt is still faith, if you are unwilling to change your mind.
  • Australia's environmental policy... going downhill.
  • But the climate can be saved, for a low, low price.
  • Hits to Wikipedia can track influenza in real time.
  • We are still on FIRE.
  • Artificial intelligence is back, baby!
  • Low taxes are not enough: Romney and friends pay no taxes at all, off-shore.
  • Adam Smith was pro-Occupy.
  • Wolf on Piketty: Do we really want to go back to Victorian / Dickensian capitalism?
  • Polanyi: "free" markets brought and will bring disaster.
  • Krugman psychoanalyzes the right. Is it too easy?
  • Economics quote of the week, Brad DeLong on conservative arguments, based on maximizing overall GDP, against the minimum wage and other social controls on income, if one even grants that premise:
"The problem with this, of course, is that maximizing real income per capita does take a stand, and a very fictional stand, on interpersonal value comparisons. To maximize real income per capita is to assert that each dollar at the margin--no matter how rich is the person that goes to--has the same effect on marginal utility, has the same effect on the greatest good of the greatest number."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dogs of War

Review of "Savage Continent", about post-war violence in Europe.

We have, typically, a very positive view of Europe, as home (though not exclusively) to philosophy, literature, classical music, enlightened politics, science, socialist government (more or less), capitalism, human rights, the UN, and the whole package of first world development. But then there are World Wars 1 and 2. What happened? Were they some kind of aberration, or a deeper expression of our humanity? Are we finally "civilized" now, able to keep the genie in the bottle forever more?

And are Europeans, and developed countries in general, different from other peoples of the world? Obviously not. That is one of the most important messages of this book, for better or for worse. We are all human, and the systems that keep inhumanity at bay are delicate social structures, unspoken virtues of civic morality, and prodigies of carbon-fueled prosperity that are probably much less robust than we take for granted.

What happens when those structures are blown away, and armies rape and pillage their way over the land? Everyone is traumatized, and long-cultivated morals fall away. Tribal affinities, long subsumed under nationalist, or even internationalist ideologies, resurface, because the basic question is.. who is left that can I trust? Injustice begets further injustice, as those who have been violated, or live in fear and desperate straights, rationalize retaliation and pre-emption without great care as to the targets. Rumor and hatred run rampant. Those who can get away with murder and robbery, do so. We are in a dog-eat-dog setting, as social circles and controls contract dramatically, down to practically nothing.

Author Keith Lowe describes this process in the wake of World War 2, when countless scores were settled, more people were dispossessed and killed, and new wars started, all after VE day. He brings tremendous detail and narrative flair to an enormous story, spanning the continent. A recent blog post mentioned how perilous it was for Jews miraculously spared from the holocaust to return to Poland, where their homes and property had long been taken by others, and where, more significantly, German-radicalized antisemitism was alive and well.

Another example is the widespread ritual shaming of women who had slept with the enemy. A few were killed, but most were stipped and shorn for their participation in the emasculation of their own country's men and honor. Their children often had a far more difficult time, shunned both in the home country as well as in Germany, if they turned in that direction. There were vast movements of refugees, as the slave labor force of Germany was freed to return home, concentration camps emtied, and new ones were set up. Germans were kicked out of the newly West-shifted Poland, and out of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, almost 12 million in all. And even those who were not driven to move crawled out from under the rubble of war, in Germany and especially in Eastern Europe, which had been brutally overrun two or more times.

Of eleven million prisoners of war, one million died in the Soviet gulag, while 100,000 died in camps of the other occupying powers, according to Lowe. On the other hand, formal efforts to hold the perpetrators of the war accountable were virtually toothless, due partly to the continuity of fascist power structures, incensing populations across the continent, who often, particularly in Italy, took justice into their own hands.

Lowe gives particularly welcome attention to the new wars that broke out in Greece and Yugoslavia, as the new reality of an east-west cold war began to set in. In Greece, the Western allies shockingly tended to side with what had been the fascist right over the communist left, who had constituted the resistance during the war. In Yugoslavia, Tito and his communist partisans had long prioritized winning the civil war over winning against Germany, and made no bones about shooting whoever needed to be shot when it was all over. They had no time for prisoners at all.

So this is an important book, however cursorily I treat it. Right now, we are tiptoe-ing backwards into European history with Russia's "protection" of its ethnic comrades in Ukraine. Ukraine was one of the "burned-over" regions of World War 2, as if its own prior holocaust from Stalin's starvation campaign wasn't bad enough. Now Putin wants to dismember it, if he can't corrupt the whole of it into servility. Shades of German policy at Hitler's height, which brought on the previous horrors, one has to say.

But what to do? How do we respect and learn from the tragedies and mistakes of yesteryear? By starting wars more expeditiously when lines of international civility are crossed (modelled by World War 1, perhaps)? Or by foreswearing all war, until we are at the wall and must, perforce, start World War 3? Or by threading some kind of diplomatic middle way between the would-be dictators and the apathetic democracies? Putin is no Hitler, but follows the same fragile logic of bullying to power, internally and externally, with a side of external revanchism. Lowe's book does illustrate that avoiding war, even at some moral and other cost, does have enormous virtues. It also re-animates the virtues of having a decent, and powerful world government that would reign in the lawlessness of international relations.

  • The nuts and bolts of the mortgage fraud machine. How Goldman got away with buying insurance against losses it itself engineered, and then got the government to pay out the policies via bankrupt AIG.
  • "Eight Rich Americans Made More Than 3.6 Million Minimum Wage Workers". Why, exactly?
  • Fundamentalist Biblicalism: putting head in sand.
  • Wall Street- even worse landlords than regular old landlords.
  • Krugman on Piketty and inequality: it's the wealth, stupid, not just the income.
  • Who is running things, anyhow? "... the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important."
  • Police pay. Self-dealing doesn't just happen in board rooms.
  • Economic quote of the week- Felix Salmon, reviewing Flash Boys:
"After all, the fact of the matter is that of all the various actors screwing your mom and pop out of the money in their retirement account, high-frequency traders are at the very bottom of the list. If, that is, they’re on the list at all."
  • Economic graph of the week, on age-ism of the recession. Another chance for the free market to defeat the public good.
Weeks unemployed, different age groups, over recent years.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Other ways of knowing

What are "other ways of knowing", and are they any good? 

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
This is a favorite Shakespeare quote for religionists of all stripes annoyed by skepticism from the new atheists, or others who do not understand how anything called knowledge could come from non-empirical sources.

It is a basic question in philosophical epistemology, but also in practical life. Do we trust new age clairvoyants and clairsentients? Why not? Do we trust anecdotal miracle cures in medicine? Do we trust the traditional patriarchial "discernment" at the heart of main-line religions, which insists that however mysterious and unknowable, somehow, somewhere, god exists, and "his" pastors & priests know what is best?

When I discuss religion, at even the most tenuous level, with believers, they frequently resort to this kind of statement, that science doesn't know everthing. The corollary is that their form of "knowledge" is therefore valid, or at least reasonable, and one should respect "other ways of knowing".

An interesting podcast recently spoke about a class of self-certified midwives- the Midwives Alliance of North America and allied groups internationally. This is a new-age-y group who favor home births, natural childbirth and no medical intervention. The results are obviously not very good on a statistical basis, though complications are rare enough that most births come out fine, and everyone can be lulled into complacency. They have a very antagonistic relationship with the medical establisment, being mutually shunned and distrustful. And their rationale for all this is not only that they have sufficient training for what is *usually an uncomplicated and of course natural process. Rather, it is that they have "other ways of knowing" that are not only appropriate to their task, but superior to the cold and sterile knowledge of the medical profession.

It is a sad and alarming story, but very common all over the alternative medicine and new age fields. But it is central to normal religions as well, since at their core, they posit that their prophets, if not many or even all of their practitioners, have some mystical connection with reality and perhaps a deity, which grants them special knowledge of a "true reality" transcending the mundane day-to-day, whatever that might be.

The skeptic assigns this to obviously psychological sources, and would prefer to ignore it entirely. But unfortunately, this way of thinking is so common that it has enormous effects on our world in practical ways, both doing harm and preventing rational planning and other good works from being done. James Frasier's The Golden Bough is a classic catalog of such superstitious and magical thinking, from all corners of anthropology.

So what do we know, what don't we know, and why are we so strongly tempted to claim knowledge we don't actually have? I think it does come down to psychology- the strength of intuition and other psychological propensities (narcissim, confirmation bias, optimism) that induce us to make up stories and then stick to them out of pride. This has been well covered in recent popular books.

It must be said that the scientific corpus is hardly perfect in this regard. Even this most respected class of knowledge is rife with out-of-date theories, bad papers, and biased research. Scientific history is always changing and throwing out the old in favor of the new. While there are bedrocks of knowledge, from the Newtonian system to DNA, there are always frontiers of hypothesis if not ignorance, and whole areas like medical research rife with sloppy and self-interested practices.

This has caused a lot of well-deserved criticism. But what else have we got? That is the big question. The scientific process, of competition, of public description and discussion of results and theories, and of ultimate empiricism, is one designed to defeat the principle ills of bad epistemology, which are claims to private knowledge and failure to judge one's knowlege by the yardstick of reality.

Another fascinating interview, with anthropologist Tanya Luhrman, takes a more positive view of religion and magic, especially of guided imagery- the common religious practice of praying, engaging imaginatively with theological concepts, talking with god, and related practices. This happens in all kinds of religion, from witchcraft to new age to hippie-influenced evangelicals, buddhists, and beyond. If you try hard enough, you can talk to god ... and even get a reply. It can be a powerful experience, and leads people to very deep belief, as well as to significant psychological health.

We all have voices in our heads. Many different "selves" who compete to guide our lives and nag and pester without end. Some of our better voices are perhaps a little shy and need a bit of encouragement. Sitting down and sorting through this in a calm way, perhaps with a institutional template and communal support, doubtless can be a great practice.

But is it knowledge? That is the question. Other ways of knowing (or OWOK) can generally be brought under the umbrella of intuition and experience. Shamanic experience with herbs, practical psychology, sweat therapy.. the list of significant knowledge is truly extensive. But all that can be validated empirically, and much of it has been. The central issue that OWOK raises is whether intuition is itself a significant source of knowledge that can be claimed against the now-traditional and dominant model of normal science.

I will try to answer "no", though there are caveats. Firstly, there are infinitely more questions than anyone has time to answer on a scientific basis, and indeed questions that can not be answered. Yet people have a real (psychological) problem with saying something as simple as "I don't know", and of course we typically have to act with incomplete knowledge. That leads us to make up stories when we are faced with a hole in our world view / model. Religion is full of such fanciful stories- the older, the more mythical. These stories of course tell us a great deal more about our psychological contents than any "knowledge" .. which I will take as meaning some aspect of a mental model of reality that is correct.

Secondly, intuition is indeed a powerful way of knowing. Much of our intelligence seems to have evolved to meet the social demands of dealing with each other- an arms race of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Our social intuition is thus a finely honed instrument, far more sensitive than any questionaire or brain scan. The home-brewed midwives above believe that they have intuitive approaches to their clients that beat the antiseptic hospital battlefield, and in some ways they are doubtless correct.

But firstly, this knowledge is not explicit and transferrable. One can't institutionalize intuition. We can nurture it, but in the end, either you have the bedside manner and personal touch, or you don't. And secondly, a real danger is in thinking that the your intution is always correct. We know that is not right, even though we are psychologically inclined to put a great deal of faith in our personal convictions. So how can you tell when your hunch about some situation is correct or not? By experience, of course ... which is the same as the emprical test.

Thirdly, intuition is not at all effective for precisely the non-human-scale questions that are such grist for the magical and theological mill- where did the world come from? How does biology work? Do we have souls? Do voodoo dolls work? Is there a god? Or many gods? Insofar as these are not questions of inner psychology, they are scientific questions which religion has done abysmally poorly in answering. I mean.. they have gotten nothing right on this score, ever. As a way of knowing, the track record is simply not there.

The reason is clear enough- that this kind of traditional magical thinking patterns the outside world on our social intelligence, assuming that everything of significance to us, from trees and rocks to the weather and the cosmos, is part of a kind of social world, and has spirits of some intentional essence, singular or collective, which have attitudes, occult forms of communication, and above all, respond to our thoughts. The ESP and psi fields of research are relict representatives of this form of thinking in the fringes of the scientific community, but without any discernable success.

So one can conclude that OWOK is a thoroughly humanist, psychological, and interpersonal concept. It does apply to a high degree in settings of caring and therapeutic support not to mention art and literature, and to business, politics and warfare, as more adversarial settings. Formal science has but scratched the surface of this kind of social knowledge that humans naturally gather and use daily. That is probably what people are instinctively thinking about when they give credence to the OWOK mantra.

But conversely, OWOK is AWOL when it comes to its stabs at scientific explanation and practice. The midwives above evidently do not know or care about the painstakingly empirical, critical and statistically supported wonders that have been instituted by modern medicine to deal with rare but catastrophic cases, learned systematically over long, bitter experience, sometimes quite contrary to what intuition (and pleasant bedside manner) might instruct. And more generally, the kinds of stories and rationalizations that myth-makers, mystics, and theologians traffic in are entirely valueless as ways of explaining the non-human world. While humans are born with some basic (Kantian a priori) implicit knowledge about the world, (vision, gravity, language, smells, etc.), this is a very far cry from "knowing" about reality in any rigorous way. There is simply no way of getting this knowledge without looking outward and doing the work of empirical science.

"We’re on our way from Lesterland to Sheldon City — from a democracy where about 150,000 Americans are the relevant funders of campaigns (the same as are named “Lester”) to a world where about 40,000 Americans are the relevant funders of campaigns (the same as are named “Sheldon”)."
  • Another quote of the week, from Charles Koch:
"The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means. ... ... despots ... ... Those in power fail to see that more government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American. Love of liberty is the American ideal." This, while he crows about all the awards he has gotten from the EPA for meeting or exceeding regulatory standards!