Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Importance of Opposition

People don't like being wrong, and they really don't like being told they are wrong. Some have more tolerance than others for it, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying it's a general truth about humans.

One of the big challenges that the modern world presents stems from one of the greatest advancements in my lifetime. The Internet has connected so many people in far-flung places with different views and different value systems. Initially, I thought this would be a boon for critical thought. I figured we'd all bump into each other, and it would teach us how to live with one another. That's how cities work, after all. In New York, for instance, all different kinds of people have had to learn how to live with each other's cultures and customs, and I think it has fostered tolerance.

Instead, though, our increased connectivity seems to have had the opposite effect: it has allowed us to find large groups of people who don't tell us we're wrong, and to make communities out of such groups that are uninviting to dissenters or even outright ban dissent. Whatever extreme, far-out views I might have, I can now go online and find others who espouse similar ones and form communities that provide reinforcement and support. It feels good and affirming. It can even be addictive. A whole group of people telling me that my suspicions are valid, that what I think has merit, that they think the same way! Views are reinforced and their holders are given a sense of validity that can only come from the nodding of heads.

And when the outside world looks in and says something contrary? Well, that's just persecution. That's bias. That's the uninformed others. Everything they say is ignorant. After all, I have my views, and look at all these people who agree. We've talked about it all in the group, and that's the conclusion we've come to. It doesn't matter that your counterpoint is logically sound. What matters is that it doesn't agree with mine, so it must be wrong, even if I can't say exactly why. It just is. I've thought through all my views, and they all make sense to me on a deep level. They can't possibly be wrong.

That's how it is. Instead of using this huge tool of connectivity to reach across borders and explore new ideas about the world, we've used it to find the people who are most like us and build exclusive niches, where we can reinforce each other and treat the outside world with mockery and scorn.

This isn't about one ideology or another. Yes, it's more common for conservative types, given the nature of conservatism, but it certainly isn't exclusive to them. I'm guilty of it myself. I can only read Fox News or something similar for so long before I just get fed up. I used to be active in an online community that catered to a lot of different views from across the political spectrum, but as society became more segregated, the atmosphere there became less tolerant and more hostile, and the whole thing eventually withered away.

Given the lack of exposure to opposing views, it becomes easy to make assumptions or judgements about them - to build straw men of their arguments and to write off their concerns as misguided. And that's unfortunate, because we all need opposing views to reel us in when we go off to far. We all seek validation, but we need to be aware of that desire and suspicious of environments that never challenge us or make us think critically about what we believe. We need to react to opposing views with intellectual honesty. If we can't refute something, we have the be able to consider that maybe it's right and we're wrong. It's not so bad being wrong, really.

At this point, the problem is beyond any individual's ability to counteract it. It might be a lost cause. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between the various factions that seem to have taken hold in the political sphere. But I do hope that we find a way to understand one another better, and that we learn to admit when we are wrong sometimes.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sadness Rules the Week

I am sad. As an American citizen, I am sad. As a father of mixed-race children, I am sad. As someone who has, time and again, fallen into the trap of mistakenly believing that things have gotten better, I am sad. As a human being, I am sad.

A few days ago, there was another police shooting. And then another. Both of them weighed heavily on me. The videos were heartbreaking to watch. And then Dallas. The city has added another high-profile sniping to its history. And then there was another shooting, one people aren't even really talking about, in Tennessee. Everyone is shooting at each other, all for no good reason, it seems.

I can't say what happened in either of the two police shootings, but I can say that I doubt death was a necessary outcome in either case. It rarely is. Two men are dead, one shot in front of a four-year-old. Several children have instantly become fatherless. And what good has come of it?

I don't believe the police go into these situations with the intention of killing black people. They're not intentionally assassinating people. But I do believe that, when they see a black face, it gets their guard up. They are quicker to draw a weapon, quicker to assume that they themselves are in danger. I do believe that they react out of a genuine sense of being in danger.

But there are two problems. One is that that sense of danger is probably overblown in the vast majority of cases. The other is that, in far too many cases, the police escalate rather than de-escalate a situation. Traffic stops should only ever result in deaths when there is a very clear and present danger, when a gun is pulled or there is an uncontested move to cause harm, not when an officer is merely scared.

Yes, that makes it more likely that an officer loses his life. But it makes it less likely that an innocent civilian does, and that should be the overarching goal. We don't live in some authoritarian state, and we need to remember that the police are agents of the government. They need to be better trained to use nonlethal methods, even when faced with lethal methods themselves. I know that the general rule is to always counter with a more lethal weapon, but lethality is rarely necessary. Guns don't have to be the first line of defense. By signing up for the job, a police officer knows the risks he or she faces. I don't have the guts to do their job, but they need to have the guts to do it.

A police officer's primary goal in any situation shouldn't be coming out of it alive. It should be upholding the law. Upon becoming police officers, that is their sworn duty, and they have to be willing to make the biggest sacrifices, including their own lives, for it. That's what is so amazing about so many police officers - they are willing to put themselves in the line of fire in order to protect others.

I look at my own kids, and I know that they have to be a little more careful if they're ever pulled over, in a way that I wouldn't, simply because of their mixed heritage. That's not how things should be, ever.

Others have made the arguments I'm attempting far more eloquently than I can, so I'll move on to the next notch: Dallas.

What happened there was devastating. The protest event going on was a model of how police and community members should be, united against crime and wrongdoing. By all accounts, it was a peaceful and dignified protest going on. Then some maniac with a warped mind gets the idea that he's doing some kind of good by unleashing a hail of bullets. Something people who do such things need to realize is that, when you do this, you hurt your cause. A peaceful protest works because it gives your enemies nothing to latch onto as wrong. Violence allows them to equate your cause with your violence, drowning out any positive messages your group is trying to make.

Maybe it was inevitable that someone would snap, given the lack of justice in so many previous cases. But it doesn't have to be like this. It doesn't have to be one side trading shots with the other. There don't have to be sides, even. Don't we all (mostly, anyway) want to have peace? Don't we all want to be able to do our jobs or ride in cars or stand around outside without worrying that someone will kill us for it?

Again, others have made this point far more eloquently than I can - foremost among them, Dr. King himself, whose justly over-quoted quote I will end with:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

If only we could take that in and process it and truly understand the wisdom of it...

Thursday, June 16, 2016

An explanation

I know, I know. I said I would write here more consistently, and I haven't written in months. Sorry about that, Void. I know you've missed me.

There's been good reason, though. The energy I had been putting into writing entries here has gone mostly into creatively productive pursuits. In particular, I've finally been mapping out some world-building ideas that have been bumping around the inside of my skull for years. I've also developed a sudden and pronounced interest in conlanging - that is, the creation of constructed languages - since reading a couple of books on it. Of course, these two things are related, so I find myself building constructed languages for a constructed world. It has been fun and fulfilling, in a very geeky sort of way.

As for the exercise, well, I haven't been consistent. I have surges where I'm good. I go for walks, I use my little exercise machine. But then I drop off and forget until some combination of guilt and gumption causes me to take up the effort once again. Like most Americans, it seems, I have trouble getting and staying in good shape, and I can't seem to find a good strategy to change that - at least not one that works for me.

Anyway, I will make no further promises regarding the regularity of my entries here, but I do intend to keep coming back, to write more.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Unfortunate Shortcomings of Humanity, Including Me

I've been taking some audio courses lately. I've taken two philosophy classes, a linguistics class, and a class on the history of ancient Rome. Currently, I'm taking a class on modern political thought. I feel so much happier when I'm learning new things, particularly in areas that have always been interesting to me but which I haven't really pursued.

It has been interesting to see how the classes, all taught at different times by different professors, have actually overlapped. The linguistics class overlapped with Rome, which overlaps with political thought, which overlaps with philosophy, etc. So much of the human condition is mirrored in other aspects of itself.

The story of language and how it has spread and evolved reminds me so much of evolutionary biology. Everything is constantly changing, evolving with no goal in sight. People misunderstand evolution enormously. There is a tendency to talk about a "next step" in evolution, as if it is going somewhere specific. It's really just like language. Changes happen for reasons too intricate to determine, and ones that seem to work catch on, sometimes for reasons only tangentially to how useful a change actually is. There is no inherent benefit to speaking Latin, but it spread because it was a trait of the Romans, who were powerful and conquered a lot of land. And then, eventually, Rome fell, and its language mixed with local dialects and such to become the Romance languages, and those further evolved and influenced other languages, including English. Those, in turn, mixed with the languages of African slaves to pepper the world with various creole languages. There is this constant interchange between the languages in a pattern that is incalculably intricate yet simple and fluid. So much of reality seems to fit that same description.

Unfortunately, our human minds aren't really capable of really understanding things as they are. We have this need to categorize and filter that, while useful for our survival, particularly in earlier times, can be a real hindrance to a quest for knowledge of any kind. We become blind to our blindnesses, believing we know things when we only suspect them, and we build beliefs on top of beliefs in such ways that the removal of one would cause the rest to crumble. We are biased and easily duped.

I was watching the Republican debate the other day. Primaries have begun, and they were going at each other, trying to win the favor of the people. What struck me strongly was that there were these five or six guys up there on the stage, spouting canned lies and misleading statistics, and the vast majority of people seemed to take what they said at face value. Blatant lies that would get a person fired from a job or hit with a divorce in some other settings are just eaten up. Even when lies are revealed to be lies, people just kind of shrug and continue. It should be a bigger deal when someone claims, "I never said that," but there is video of him saying it. It should be a bigger deal when someone claims they created jobs when they clearly didn't. It's lying in the job interview, and they're caught red handed. But no one cares.

We seem to have a tribal kind of approach to elections. It's like a sport in so many ways. I am automatically biased against Republican candidates because I can't help but think of them as the Bad Guys. I'd like to say it's for real well-considered ideological reasons, but often it isn't. It's just knowing that they are Republicans. It's mostly like how I'm a Mets fan and will automatically root against a team if they are playing against the Mets. There is no rational reason for it - they're just part of my tribe.

It's not exactly the same, as there are certainly some ideological differences between the Republicans and myself. But I automatically put them in a certain box as soon as I know they are Republicans. I know I do it, and I don't think I can actually stop myself from doing that. I can only acknowledge that bias and do my best to consider it as a factor in my own judgements.

I can't say I'm blown away by the Democratic candidates, either. I like Bernie Sanders, but the man is unelectable. And Hillary Clinton? Well, I guess she'd be better than the guys I saw the other night, but she's far from an ideal candidate. She has too much of her husband's slippery slickness, but she isn't as good as him at pretending to be sincere. I just don't trust her very much at all. I look across the ocean at countries like Norway and wonder why people here are so reluctant to take some ideas from them. There's no shortage of innovation, and the people are much happier and better educated. Oh well.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Democracy and the Political Machine

Tonight, voters in Iowa take the first step in determining who the next President of the United States will be. It's just the beginning of the nomination season, but already I'm tired of it. Election years can be so draining. Donald Trump has been leading the way for Republicans in the early going, and Hillary Clinton seems to have a pretty good lead over Bernie Sanders. The prospect of a Trump vs. Clinton showdown in November does not fill me with anything close to delight.

As a young adult, I was not what you would call a politically-minded person. I was vaguely aware that there were various crooks and liars vying for control of the country, but their names and faces were mostly just a blur. I didn't vote at all because I felt like I never wanted to be part of it. National politics were too far removed from me, and local politics didn't matter much because I wasn't in one stable place.

Nowadays, I'm considerably more aware of the specifics involved. There are still various crooks and liars vying for control of the country, but at least I know who some of them are now, and I can see that some are worse than others. I vote now, but mostly it's to keep someone out of office rather than to put someone in. It's always a least-of-all-evils situation. I sometimes wish I could get caught up in the magnetic pull of a candidate I really believed in, the way so many people seem to be caught up, but I've never even come close. I guess the closest I ever did get to that was Obama's first turn. The idea of someone different being in charge was a pretty nice one. He didn't look the same or speak the same, and he was so much less embarrassing on the world stage than Dubya. But people tried to make a deity of him, which set him up to fail.

He didn't quite fail - overall I think Obama did a pretty good job with what he had to work with, which was constant opposition and an increasingly circus-like atmosphere in Washington. I think he'll go down as a middle-of-the-pack president, maybe a bit better than that.

Anyway, getting to the point I wanted to make here... I'm really disheartened by the whole state of politics in this country. I'm not sure it's fixable. One of the biggest problems is the general ignorance of the population. A democracy simply can't function properly if its constituents are not educated well. I don't mean we need a nation of Rhodes Scholars. We just need people to not be completely foolish. Young Earth creationism? Really? That's a thing that a significant number of people in this country adhere to? And the so-called "anti-vaxxers"? Our anti-intellectual culture has allowed a variety of such fact-challenged worldviews to proliferate among the masses, and their influence has allowed those pulling the strings to manipulate them into voting against their own best interests time and again.

And those strings are getting tighter. All that dark money will ensure that whoever wins the seat in the Oval Office will be beholden to the interests of the elite. That, or they'll be Donald Trump, and they'll just be awful.

The ancient Greeks knew that the biggest weakness of democracy, the thing that could bring about its downfall, was an uneducated voting population. We know that now, too, of course, and that knowledge is used to keep people dumb and distracted enough that they can be manipulated more easily. I guess it's better than having a totalitarian in charge, but it's not the shining light of hope that people seem to think it is.

The United States set an awesome example for how to have a functioning nation, but it has been surpassed. In the marketplace of ideas, the US has stalled out. The framers were breakers of tradition who wanted ideas rather than people to be held up as examples. How would they feel about how often their names are used as if they are gods or saints, to be venerated like kings?

We spend too much time staring in the mirror and admiring ourselves while the rest of the world moves on. It would be so much better to spend that time figuring out how to improve.

Anyway, I'm tired and at this point I'm just ranting, probably somewhat incoherently. Maybe I'll come back and fix this post up tomorrow. Probably not. No reason to spend time fixing it when I could write another instead.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Folly of Scientism

I was reading through a rant that someone posted on an atheist site today in which the poster claimed that science is only the religion of the moment and has no more to back it up than religion does. It's an odd claim to make, but upon reading more, I could see what the poster was trying to express, although the choice of terminology could have been better.

What he was trying to rail against was not science, but scientism. One is often mistaken for the other, and the term "scientism" is not well known. Scientism is a trap easily fallen into for many science-minded people. I find it difficult to define in any succinct way, but essentially it is a glorification of science beyond any reasonable level. The particular version of scientism argued against in the post, though, was the glorification of scientific results.

Science, by its nature, never arrives at an answer. One of its core ideas, really, is that you can approach knowledge, but you can never fully attain it. You put forth a hypothesis and test it out, and if your hypothesis is demonstrably better than every other hypothesis, it becomes the leading theory on whatever it is about. But if someone else comes along with a better one, well, yours is gone. There is a constant progression toward knowledge without ever a true acquisition of it. Even something as seemingly obvious as Newtonian physics was upended when Einstein came along with something better. Nothing is sacred, and nothing is set.

However, one who has fallen into the scientism trap will often take whatever the latest consensus is on a given topic and treat it as irrefutably proven. Let's look at global climate change as an example. All the evidence we have points to it being real and being influenced by human activity. As it stands now, that is the overwhelming scientific consensus. It could be wrong, and all true scientists must admit that it could be wrong, but it represents the best explanation for the data that we have.

The general public has a hard time with the lack of certainty in science. Unscrupulous talking heads will often prey upon this by sowing an inordinate amount of doubt in a scientifically reached consensus. There is usually some political or personal motivation behind this. Someone will go on television to point out some perceived inconsistency, claiming it refutes the consensus view. It can be very tempting for a scientist or a science-minded person to counter back with a claim that the consensus view is irrefutable fact. This is one of the traps of scientism. It is unscientific to claim any fact is irrefutable.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't consider global climate change to be a real and legitimate threat. If we were to wait around for things to be proven before acting on them, we'd never do anything. We all have a threshold beyond which we consider something to be proven well enough to act on. It's important to keep that threshold consistent and to understand what it is. Science is a tool to help us do that. When scientists write up results, they usually include a confidence interval, which basically gives you an idea of how likely their conclusion is correct based on the data. The confidence interval is never 1.00 (a "perfect score"). Acknowledgement of the possibility of error is built into science.

Most scientists do understand this, but it's very hard for the human mind to handle uncertainty well, it seems. We find what we think works and we stick to it, and we're loath to admit when we're wrong. We don't want our personal philosophies to be undermined. We aren't logic machines. Science is an acknowledgement of that, and it presents us with a way to move forward without denying the uncertainty.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Self Imprisonment

The sting of social isolation can be a little more barbed at some times than it is at others. While I am often most comfortable when I'm alone with my thoughts, lately I have been feeling a real emptiness when I look left and right and see no one. Don't get me wrong. There are people all around me. I have wonderful kids who give my life meaning, great relations with my coworkers, and even an ex-wife with whom I get along very well. But there are certain roles that can only be filled by certain kinds of people, and the empty places in my life have been increasingly on my mind.

This is partially of my own construction, although I would hesitate to say that it has been a willing construction. It is more the sort of thing I've done as a defense of sorts. I am responsible for these two boys of mine, and they rely on my attention quite a bit. I adore them more than I could ever adore anything else. Anytime I have attempted to build a life for myself outside of my children and my job, things have gone off the rails for me. It has become a major distraction, and the areas of my life I care about most have suffered.

My default state has always been one of being alone. Left to my own devices, I do not seek companionship. This is not because I don't want it, but because it doesn't come naturally to me. It is a true effort to seek out and form relationships of any kind with other people. It requires time, energy, attention, and focus. When I devote those resources toward forming relationships, I take them away from other places, and those other places (home, work) are the ones that need the most attention, especially the home. I've generally been able to live with this.

Well, now it's getting harder.

Now I'm starting to see some negative impact of my complete lack of a social life. The emptiness I am feeling in one area of my life is affecting how I feel at unrelated times. As someone who has spent a good deal of time thinking about the human mind, this isn't surprising to me. An imbalance in life like the one I have isn't really mentally healthy. But I've been trying to sneak by like this for as long as possible.

My old friends are mostly all busy with their own lives now. Everyone is married or in a relationship and doesn't have a lot of time to get together. And, to be honest, I really have no idea how to make new friends at my age. When I was younger, there seemed to be so much time. Friends could get together on a whim, and there could always be people around. Now that I'm in my forties, the only way to meet people is through some kind of structured program like online dating or meetup or something like that. I suppose I could find a nice meetup group or something, but I find myself coming back to the issue of time and energy.

I find myself wishing for some kind of romantic partner as well, even though the last time I tried to make that happen, a few months ago, it just didn't work out. Again, time and energy. But if this frustration and emptiness keeps clawing at me from inside, it's going to reach some breaking point where I just need to do something. I'm not there yet, but I can see it coming.

I have a lot to think about.