Archives

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

(The following is the beginning of an exchange on a libertarian’s Facebook page, with the first comment being his status update. It continued, as these exchanges often do, with my repeated suggestion that we step back from our substantive certainties and agree to base our discourse on the premise that we’re all fallible, and if we all strive to be rational and humane people, in disciplined and methodical ways, it would serve society better than our competing blind ideologies, and with this suggestion being responded to with every excuse imaginable for why it couldn’t be accepted. And this is the great ongoing tragedy of our shared existence, not just the persistence of irrationality, but the emotional investment in its preservation against all suggestions and invitations to work toward transcending it.)

KW: God Bless You for your choices, now kindly step aside as I make my own.

SH: What if your choice were to hurt others? Should I kindly step aside then? So, you have to qualify it to say “now kindly step aside unless my choice is to hurt others and good citizens need to stop me from doing that.”

But lots of things hurt others in subtle ways. We are interdependent, and our actions affect one another. So some of our laws have to recognize that there are individual actions that we each can engage in that cause one another more harm than we, as a society, can allow. For instance, if I do work in my home that produces some form of toxic waste, and I dump that waste on my own property in such a way that gets into the groundwater that others drink and causes deadly disease among those who drink it, then don’t we as a society have good reason to say that no individual can dump toxic waste on their own property?

There are so many things like that in our lives, so much interdependence, that the meme that each should be absolutely free to do whatever they choose really serves more to obscure the real challenge of determining where to draw the line between individual liberty and agreed upon limits to it for mutual benefit than to enlighten or guide us in any meaningful way.

RA: Live Free!

SH: Self-governing on the basis of slogans rather than in-depth, nuanced, and diligent thought isn’t really that good an idea. One of the things you’ll notice about every one of the most horrible chapters of modern world history is that the authors of those horrors were all always deeply immersed in moving slogans.

JW: @Steve you are dangerously close to the most dangerous slogan of all time “for the greater good”. How about, “my ability to swing my arm ends at your nose”. People have to learn to live in close proximity to one another without resorting to trying to live each others lives for them.

SH: J, our own Constitution declares the importance of governing for “the general welfare.” The fact is that I live by no slogan at all, but rather by the belief that there is only one ideology to which any of us should ever adhere: That of striving to be rational and humane people, wise enough to know that none of us knows all that much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That’s not “a slogan,” but rather a philosophy, and not a shallow philosophy that fails to capture the true complexity and subtlety of the world we live in, but rather one based squarely on the recognition of that complexity and subtlety.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t consider the liberal-conservative divide the fundamental one, nor is it how I define my own commitments. I am committed to the disciplined use of human consciousness in service to humanity, period. That includes using disciplined reason, imagination, research, analysis, contemplation, and discourse, recognizing our limitations, uncertainties, and the value of allowing some organic processes to function without trying to impose ourselves on them at every turn. It includes many, many things that can be discussed and debated and ever better understood by ever more people.

If a person comes to that process with that attitude self-identifying as a conservative, that’s fine with me. If they don’t embrace that process at all, but self-identify as a liberal, then they’re as much a part of the problem as those who don’t come to that process at all and self-identify as conservatives. The blind ideologies are not the answer; the processes that best liberate and mobilize human genius are, including the genius of laissez-faire to the extent and in the ways and under the circumstances that laissez-faire is best recommended by our best understandings of how the world works. 

But that’s not what happens. What happens is that people come fully armed with an array of false certainties arrived at haphazardly, through socialization and indoctrination and emotional predisposition, and treat those false certainties as indisputable truths. We all do it to some extent, even those of us who do it to the least extent, because that’s how the human mind works: We reduce an infinitely complex and subtle reality to manageable form in order to function in the world, and mistake our cognitive models for the reality itself. A critical step toward being rational and humane people is recognizing that, and working with it.

But when people declare that they have the one right substantive ideology, they are digging into the opposite cognitive orientation, the cognitive orientation which clings most tenaciously to their own false certainties, and is most insulated from actual fact and reason and growing comprehension. Do I think that that is more closely associated with modern American conservatism than modern American liberalism? Yes, but that’s not really the point. The point is that all of us should strive to be wiser than that, and those who refuse, regardless of what ideology they identify with, merit criticism for refusing. 

I always refer to reason AND humanity, though in many ways humanity is implicit in reason, as long as we agree on certain underlying values of fairness and long-term functionality, because we are ultimately interdependent, and reason dictates that we recognize our interdependence and act not under the pretense that it doesn’t exist but with the constant awareness that it does. “Liberty” does not mean the absence of interdependence, but rather a particular orientation to it, a value embedded within it that only has meaning in its context. Those who neglect to understand that end up turning the beautiful and valuable concept of human “liberty” into a cruel and ugly excuse for acting in predatory and implicitly inhumane ways. 

It’s no coincidence that slave owners used the concept of “liberty” to rationalize their commitment to the institution of slavery (the greatest assault on human liberty in the history of our nation, matched only by the displacement and destruction of the indigenous population), arguing that to deny them (the slave owners) their property (their slaves) would be an assault on their (the slave owners’) “liberty” (see John C. Calhoun’s “Union and Liberty”). And it’s no coincidence that modern Tea Party/libertarian ideology is part of a continuous ideological thread reaching back into that same use of the concept of “liberty.” Knowing and understanding history, deeply and richly and thoroughly, is useful to our present understandings and commitments. 

I could go on. I could write books on this. But there is only one rational place to start, only one rational foundation to build on, and that is reason itself, not the arbitrarily claim of already having embodied it in one’s current substantive certainties (as some I’ve interacted with insist upon, as their way of rejecting the notion that we should all strive to be rational and humane people), but in a commitment to the methodologies and procedures which have proved in recent centuries to be the most robust for minimizing bias and maximizing accuracy, and using those procedures –which include debates that aren’t just shouting matches but actually adhere to the rules of debate, the rules of evidence, the rules of logic, or whose relative merits are judged by how well they adhere to them—in service to our shared humanity. 

It’s a simple premise. I think it would generally favor what are now considered liberal positions, but if I’m wrong, I’d rather surrender my own false certainties than insulate myself from reason in order to preserve them. It is the process of reason in service to humanity that I am committed to, not to any current assumption of what conclusions it leads to. 

And that’s something that all rational and humane people should be able to agree to, should be able to rally around. I know some moderate conservatives who do, and I identify more with them, am more reassured by their presence in our polity, than I am by dogmatic liberals who don’t. And if we can simply put aside the shouting matches over precipitous substantive false certainties, and instead agree to work at being that kind of a polity, a rational and humane polity, then this would be an even more admirable and extraordinary nation than it already is (if that’s what it already is), and an even greater gift to the world than it already is (if that’s what it already is). And we would leave on the margins, on the dust heap of history where they belong, the commitment to ignorance and bigotry and oversimplistic dogma that some insist on adhering to, moving forward instead as an increasingly rational and humane people. 

KW: Steve, why do you use my status to go on your diatribe. I respect your take but you immediately disregarded the simple fact that I am Libertarian and not a single one of my choices harm another. 

JW: I know better than to feed the trolls but I am going to respond to your essay Steve. Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit”. At least with the simple statements that K and I have made, a reasonable person might gather the basics of our personal philosophies. I read through your entire post and honestly could not make a determination of where you fall philosophically. Given the lengths to which you used as many words as possible to say as little as possible, I am inclined to believe that you are a statist leaning liberal that would bind us in the chains of some nebulous “social contract” that no party signs yet all are supposed to abide by. Orson Wells took such thoughts about “humanity” to its inevitable conclusion in Animal Farm where of course, all are equal but some where more equal than others. Unlike K, I will not respect your philosophy if it is one that would consign us to the politics of pull, where influence becomes the prime product of a society and the real producers are enslaved to the “greater good”.

SH: K, the whole purpose of the rule of law is that we can’t simply rely on each other to do the right thing, and that we must govern ourselves, as a people, with laws that bind us and limit us in certain ways for mutual benefit. You say that I disregard the fact that you are a libertarian and that your choices harm no one else. No, I dispute the notion that we don’t need laws because some people are not inclined to break them in the first place, or that the recognition that we do need laws is compatible with the ideologically exclusive emphasis on absolute freedom.

As for why I use your status to go on my diatribe: If one propagates defective ideas that can be harmful to humanity where I can challenge them, then I will challenge them.

J, you couldn’t make that determination because not all philosophies are dogmas, and mine is one such that is not a dogma. It is a commitment to the same foundations that inform science and law, a commitment to methodologies and procedures rather than to presumptions and false certainties. “My” philosophy is not reductionist, is not the folly of imposing on a complex world a simplistic panacea. It is, rather, a commitment to reason (which is served by disciplined methodologies and procedures that have proved their worth over the last several centuries) in service to humanity (rather than in service to some segment of humanity at the expense of other segments of humanity).

You assume I’m an adherent to your caricature of left-wing ideology, to which you relegate everyone who is not a member of your preferred reduction of reality, not recognizing the existence of any form of political economic thought that does not fit neatly into one or the other of your two caricatures of political economic thought. It’s a tidy but shallow world you live in. Maybe it’s time to consider the possibility that it’s not the last word of human comprehension. (And that’s the point, isn’t it? Knowing that we don’t know rather than insisting that we do, and, in the womb of that wise humility, actually learning, discovering, growing, approaching the challenge of engaging a complex and subtle world with imagination and analytical discipline rather than blind ideological fervor. THAT is the real political divide in America today, whether to be a raging ideologue, or an imaginative and analytical participant in an on-going enterprise.)

“My” philosophy is to start with the simple agreement among all who are willing to strive to be rational and humane people. It may seem insignificant, but I think that it is an important step, because both reason and humanity are easily lost to the zeal of blind ideologies. So, we say, “look, I know that I’m fallible, and that the world is complex, so lets agree, first and foremost, that we’re going to strive to be rational and humane, and take it from there.” it’s a good agreement to make, a good foundation to build on, and very much in the spirit of the formation of this nation, which was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy that a people can and should govern themselves rationally and humanely, debating as rational citizens rather than merely clinging to ideological assumptions.

Once we make that agreement, we can discuss how to realize it. Clearly, scientific methodology is better than other preceding and generally more haphazard approaches when it comes to understanding empirical phenomena, to ascertaining factual and systemic knowledge. Similarly, legal procedure is preferable to, for instance, trial by ordeal, for ascertaining guilt or innocence, or ascertaining facts and applying the law to them. These are developments over recent centuries that have increased the role of rationality in our lives. We can work to extend their domain beyond the halls of academe and the courts of law, and to employ more of their logic, and reap more of their benefits, in public discourse in general.

And it all starts with something as self-evidently desirable as simply agreeing to strive to be rational and humane people, and giving that agreement priority over any other ideological commitments.

George Orwell (not Orson Wells) wrote “Animal Farm” about an ideology coopted in service to oppression. Any ideology can be used as such a pretext, even one that claims to exist for the opposite purpose (as, indeed, Communism itself did). Ideologies always insist that every other ideology is the road to Hell, and that they alone provide salvation. It’s a common theme. They use rousing symbols and slogans to proclaim themselves the defenders of some noble ideal, and then, if they are not more procedurally than substantively oriented, inevitably betray that ideal.

A commitment to humanity is not a commitment to totalitarianism. But a failure to commit to humanity, to commit to reason, is an invitation to the institutionalization of irrationality and inhumanity, as has so often happened in so many times and places. Ironically, Libertariansim has something fundamentally in common with Marxism, and that is profound and oversimplistic political economic dogmatism. Marxism identified the state as the solution to all problems, and Libertarianism identifies the market as the solution to all problems, though economists well understand that neither is and that both have a vital role to play.

We should all act more like economists and less like ideologues when discussing economic issues. We should, in general, all strive to act more like rational and humane people, wise enough to know that we don’t know much, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our one and only ideology

By the way, the concept of ‘trolls” on Facebook has clearly become distorted to mean “anyone who invades an ideological echo-chamber with any perspective discordant with that of the pariticpants of the echo-chamber.” If that is the new definition of “troll,” than I’m proud to be one, because these echo-chambers are unhealthy to our democracy and do poor service to the growth of reason and understanding. We need, instead, a robust, informed and informative, rational and disciplined, public discourse, where ideas are exchanged and challenged, and we work together to improve our understandings and our ability to cooperate for mutual benefit.

I would limit the term “troll” to mean anyone, on any thread, whose contribution is intended or designed to drown out signal with noise, and reduce rather than increase the informativeness and rationality of the discourse taking place.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In many on-line debates, a well-informed and well-reasoned argument is met with the greatest scorn, often in the form of responses decrying the arrogance of the person making the argument. These responses are almost always devoid of substance, a string of z’s or a sarcastic announcement that the opponent obviously isn’t intelligent enough to have an opinion. Often a request is made to cease making such well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, to protect those who feel intimidated by them from having to be challenged so discourteously.

Putting the best face on it, one can argue that there is some merit in this objection, that everyone should feel safe to express their own opinion, and that intimidating arguments, such as those found in courts or the halls of academe, are not appropriate in the forums of public discourse. But this fails to understand the value of free speech, its purpose, and what is lost when we are more concerned with protecting arbitrary opinions from factual and rational challenges than we are with, together, arriving at the best informed and best reasoned conclusions.

Those who are most ideological and least analytical are most committed to a view of public discourse as being the futile “exchange” or arbitrarily held and inflexible dogmatic convictions. Those who are most analytical and least ideological are most committed to a view of public discourse as being a robust debate between relatively well-informed and well-reasoned arguments. Among the fundamental meta-debates underlying all other issue-specific debates is the between these competing narratives, with one side favoring entrenched dogma courteously left unchallenged, and the other favoring an increasingly disciplined process of discovery.

There is an ongoing battle on such forums whether we should be more committed to lowering or raising the level of discourse. It might seem odd that anyone could argue that we should lower it, but many implicitly do. It does a disservice to our nation and to our shared challenge of self-governance to take such a position. As uncomfortable as rational debate might be –particularly to those who are least rational– it must be the ideal toward which we continue to aspire.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

‎(The following, originally a comment of mine on a Facebook thread, I first published on CC as a comment on another post but decided deserves a post of its own. It was in response to an angry reaction to the argument that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. I think it hits the nail right on the head.)

Hi Joyce. Pleased to meet you.

There are plenty of websites and pages which are dedicated to particular dogmas, want to preserve an echo-chamber where adherents to that dogma can reinforce prevailing assumptions and articles of faith, and exclude the introduction of any facts or arguments that are inconvenient to them. There are others that, while they may have prevailing biases, remain, to their credit, dedicated to public discourse and the robust exchange of ideas, the life-blood of a vibrant and well-functioning democracy (or “republic,” if you prefer).

There are legitimate debates that we, the sovereign (in our “popular sovereignty”), need to have, over economics, law (including Constitutional law), culture, values, and numerous other issues relevant to our shared existence as a polity, as a state and a nation. The more able we are to engage in that discussion as reasonable people of goodwill, the better off we’ll all be.

And my only argument here is one that no one should find offensive: That the more people who agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that they don’t know, driven by a combination of pragmatic realism and a sense of fairness and human decency, the more able we are to thrive as a society and to prosper as individuals.

Our society is divided by something more profound than the ideologies we normally identify, a chasm that divides many societies in many times and places. That division is between those who, on the one hand, accept the notion that being a responsible citizen requires striving to be a reasonable person of goodwill, and those who reject that notion. Some who reject the notion can be found on the Left; some who accept it can be found on the Right. I feel far greater affinity for, and far more thoroughly enjoy and feel satisfied by discussions with, those on the Right who accept this premise than those on the Left that don’t.

People sometimes argue over which ideologies are responsible for the horrors and violences against humanity of the past, and some do contortions to revise history to insist that it was always the ideology they oppose and never the ideology they adhere to. But, in reality, the horrors and violences against humanity that have occurred throughout history and around the world have found vehicles from all across the political ideological spectrum; sometimes under the auspices of totalitarian governments, sometimes under the auspices of tribal feuds obstructing the ability of national governments to form and function; sometimes under theocracies in which religious leaders have taken power, and sometimes under philosophies that claim there is no god. The one thing they all have in common is that they are perpetrated by people who choose either to impose a dogmatic certainty rather than support procedures of on-going discovery and decision-making, or they disintegrate into the cynical pursuit of self and local interests without maintaining the social coherence to do that in a mutually beneficial way. In other words, they are all perpetrated by people who lack a commitment to either reason or goodwill (or both).

It’s clear that in this country at this time, there are many who lack those two values, and are vehement in their rejection of those two values. They react angrily to any suggestion that we should put aside our ideological differences long enough to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, each and every one of us aware of the fact that we are not in possession of the final answers on all matters, and each and every one of us dedicated to the on-going challenge of governing ourselves wisely and fairly. They are a vocal minority, but far from a majority. Most Americans are not attracted to people of that nature, whether they are found on the Right or Left or anywhere in between. Most Americans want to be decent human beings, reasonable people of goodwill, working together with others similarly inclined to govern ourselves wisely and fairly.

So we, that majority of us who feel that way, should make it the dominant ideology. We should agree that we are all mere human beings, each certain of things that may or may not be true, engaged in a process together that requires listening as well as speaking, thinking as well as knowing, considering the world from the perspective of others as well as from our own. We, all reasonable people of goodwill, can work toward that end, can advocate for that “ideology,” can encourage others to join such a movement. And we, all of us, would be far, far, far better off for it.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

One of the great paradoxes of American history and society is that we are simultaneously a country founded by religious zealots committed to the promotion of religious zealotry, and a country established on Enlightenment principles committed to the creation and preservation of a secular Constitutional Republic. In an honest debate over which direction best serves current and future generations of Americans and humanity, I personally believe that there is no contest: Religious fanaticism and Theocracy are the authors of untold horrors in the world, and it is not a model to be emulated.

It’s true, of course, that some secular “religions” have produced the same horrible outcomes (Bolshevism is the iconic example), which leads to the wise conclusion that it is not the presence or absence of some conceptualization of the divine that renders an ideology destructive to human welfare, but rather merely an aura of absolutism, a belief that the complex and subtle reality of the world has been perfectly distilled into an easily grasped human ideology, and that no further discussion is required. It is not religion that is at fault, but rather blind dogma, absolute faith in some reductionist representation of how the world works and how we should interface with it.

Identifying this problem is easier than solving it. Humans have no choice but to conceptualize the complex and subtle reality of which we are a part in manageable ways, to reduce it to images and forms and packages that we can understand and work with. Our most sublime intellectual achievements do this as surely as our most shallow superstitions. But what distinguishes our most sublime intellectual achievements is that they are products of a process through which our imaginations and our intellects are disciplined and evolve, whereas our most shallow superstitions are ossified products of ancient imaginations entrenched in our consciousness and as insulated as possible from the continuing lathe of reason and imagination. One modality is based on skepticism, on critical thinking, and the other on Faith, on blind acceptance of given “truths.”

(The same holds true for modern dogmas, sometimes intellectual and frequently political ideological, as for archaic superstitions: The greater the extent to which adherents dogmatically believe substantive tenets, the more in the mode of “religious fanaticism” they are; the more they commit to on-going procedures –facilitated by wise uncertainty– which favor reason and humanity, the more they are contributing to the progress of both human consciousness and the social institutional and technological landscape that emanates from it.)

The dilemma in America is not that we are in a debate over these two modalities of thought, but rather that one of these two modalities precludes such a debate. It is not possible to engage in a debate with blind dogma insulated from reason and information. But worse yet, not only is such a debate precluded, but those who preclude it play a shell game with these two very different modalities of thought, turning the U.S. Constitution, which is so much in the tradition of reasoned engagement with the complex and subtle world we live in, into a quasi-sacred document, stripped of its actual subtlety and wisdom, and selectively understood and interpreted in service to the blind dogma that they favor.

They claim to be champions of the Constitution, while in reality being its most virulent enemies. What the Constitution represents first and foremost is rule of law, and what rule of law is first and foremost is a procedural discipline, a commitment to making decisions about legality through processes established by both the Constitution and by the challenge of implementing it in a real world more complex than any such document can fully anticipate.

But rather than accept that we have a real Constitution, written by mere human beings in a language full of ambiguities and imprecisions and in a time which framed their understandings and emphases, a document that Constitutional Scholars debate and study and spend dedicated lifetimes trying to fully understand, in the context of an ever-changing world, these would-be theocrats insist that only their superficial and frequently poorly informed interpretations, sometimes completely at odds with any literal interpretation of the document itself, must prevail.

If one points out to them, as I have sometimes done, that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes…to pay for the general welfare,” and that that is a rather broad power that, if literally interpreted, means that there is no limitation on what Congress can tax and spend in service to, as long as Congress can make a case that it serves the general welfare, they answer that there must be limits on it, because, after all, isn’t such a limitation what their dogma insists upon? They love the Constitution until it blatantly contradicts their ideology, at which point it is, in their view, the Constitution rather than their ideology which must yield. That is the very essence of anti-Constitutionalism.

(The limitation on the tax-and-spend power of that clause is, of course, that if voters don’t like the way Congress is exercising it, voters can fire them and hire representatives who do so more in accord with their wishes. The Constitution, drafted to strengthen rather than weaken the federal government, was designed, as explicitly elaborated on in The Federalist Papers, to overcome the collective action problems rampant under the Articles of Confederation that preceded it. It’s no accident that the Founding Fathers included this ample power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare.)

Of course, as many point out, well-reasoned and well-informed arguments fall on deaf ears, because people in general, and religious and quasi-religious fanatics in particular, do not form their opinions according to the dictates of reason applied to evidence –or in service to humanity rather than to their own national, racial, class, ethnic, etc., in-groups– but rather on the basis of emotional appeals to the frames and narratives which form our consciousness and our identities. When I argue that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (toward all humanity), and others respond that that won’t work because there are those who lack reason and lack such goodwill, I reply that the irrationality and belligerence (toward humanity) of others does not imply that we must be irrational and belligerent (toward humanity) as well.

I emphasize “toward humanity” because the misconception is common, among both those who tend to agree with me on substantive positions and those who tend to disagree, that goodwill toward humanity precludes hurting the feelings of those who preach ideologies or behave in ways which are antagonistic to humanity. It doesn’t. (Those on the right embrace this fallacy to discredit those challenging the substance of their ideology, by claiming that anyone who criticizes their ideology is not acting with goodwill toward humanity; those on the left embrace this fallacy to discredit the challenge to their preference for righteous rage over effective advocacy, arguing that since goodwill toward belligerent fanatics is ineffective the ideal of goodwill toward humanity is irrelevant to political discourse.)

Goodwill toward humanity does not mean that you cannot intervene militarily to stop a genocide, even though shooting at people (in a military action to stop a genocide) is not really the best expression of goodwill toward them personally. Nor does goodwill toward humanity preclude one from hurting the feelings of someone preaching some hateful ideology by sharply criticizing their ideology, and doing so in terms which are logically and emotionally compelling and thus, to them, offensive. To the contrary, goodwill toward humanity requires it, not gratuitously, and not in service to one’s own emotional gratification, but rather in service to moving the zeitgeist gradually in a desired direction.

For those who believe that moving the zeitgeist in a desired direction is impossible, all I can say is: Glance back across the sweep of human history, and you will see that it has been done before, and is done constantly. Scientific methodology didn’t exist half a millennium ago, but has grown in prominence over that span of time, in large part due to human effort, and frequently against human resistance. That thread of history, in fact, is the archetype of what I’m advocating. We have, historically, increased the salience of reason and goodwill in human affairs, by developing scientific methodology and legal procedures, and by developing humanistic philosophies which identify the rights of individuals and the value of various forms of egalitarianism. Extending these historical processes is what Progressives should be most committed to. And, by that definition, all reasonable people of goodwill should be Progressives.

(I’m tempted to dump the word “Progressives,” though, because, of course, the ideology that goes by that name is not precisely the ideal ideology I have described. True “progressivism” would involve reducing the emphasis on precipitous substantive certainties, and increase the emphasis on ever-evolving procedural disciplines developed for the purpose of realizing an ever-evolving humanism.)

It’s true, of course, that merely making well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments is not the primary way in which the zeitgeist changes. We think in frames and narratives, and it is through those frames and narratives that change occurs. But one frame which almost all modern Americans embrace is that they are reasonable people, that their beliefs are what are supported by reason and evidence, that in any debate between equally competent debaters, their point of view inevitably wins. Another frame common to almost all modern Americans is that each believes themself to be a person of goodwill, a person whose ideology is the ideology which best serves others. Few Americans explicitly applaud Scrooge before the transformation and condemn Scrooge after the transformation; almost all define themselves as being a reasonable person of goodwill.

One way to challenge these frames is to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, to make the discrepancy between the narratives that people are subjectively applying to themselves and the narratives that they are “objectively” living as inescapable as possible. And that means not only throwing well-reasoned arguments in their face, but rather throwing in their face well-reasoned arguments that challenge not particular policy positions but, more importantly, their own fundamental identity.

The way in which I habitually do this is, in every conversation in which a blind and belligerent dogma is being favored, to ask the person favoring it if they would be willing to set aside for a moment our substantive disagreements and agree with me only that we should all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can in service to humanity. Some leap to agree; many do not. But almost all recognize, on some level or another, that they can either agree with this premise or suffer the cognitive dissonance of realizing that they are unwilling to.

I strongly recommend that this one, simple commitment become our core ideological identity and the platform that we most consistently and relentlessly advocate. It is a position which most find difficult to denounce, and to which many who do not consider themselves “progressives” would gladly gravitate. It is the basis for all well-conceived progressive policies, the standard by which they should be measured, such that it is this ideal rather than anything else we currently believe that should hold sway. And it is a shared foundation to which we want to attract as many people as possible (from all across the ideological spectrum).

The catalyst for this essay was an exchange on Colorado Confluence’s Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence). The exchange captures much of what I’m talking about, and expands upon some of the ideas I’ve presented here, so I am reproducing it below. It started with my posting a link to this Economist article on the relationship between religion and politics in America (http://www.economist.com/node/21548964) accompanied by this comment from me:

A nice summary of the disingenuity of Santorum’s remark about people of faith being banished from the public square (which is both the opposite of the current reality, and not advocated by any mainstream public official past or present), and the complex relationship between faith and politics in America.

One thing the article doesn’t note is the tension between the “Free Exercise” and “Establishment” clauses of the First Amendment: Government can neither inhibit nor promote any particular religion, which leaves a very narrow band between the two in which to operate.

Many religious zealots in America, for instance, don’t realize that, while it is unconstitutional for a school to promote or sponsor prayer on school grounds, it is also unconstitutional for schools to prohibit prayer on school grounds, as long as it is done in a manner which does not disrupt the normal functioning of the school and does not appear to carry the “imprimatur” of the school (e.g., does not use the school PA system, or occur as a part of a school event). It is, of course, the right balance…, except for theocrats who don’t want freedom of religion but rather a tyranny of their own religion.

For more on religion, see “Is Religion a Force for Good?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=742), “A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2452), “Do Deities Defecate?” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2504), and “Discourse, Diderot, and Deity” (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=1081).

A woman named Dina then commented “wow, drink the cool aid (sic) much?” This was my response:
Okay, I’ll bite. What Kool-Aid are we talking about? If we’re invoking cult leader Jim Jones and the mass suicide he orchestrated (which is where the term comes from), then it would make more sense to use it to refer to those who are defending dogmatic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) against a commitment to a more open and moderate secularism. But such reversals of meaning, though ironic in the extreme, are also remarkably common.
She then replied, “”‘socialism,’ ‘secularism,’ let’s call the whole thing off!” To which I responded:
“Secularism” and “Socialism” are not the same thing. Our Constitution essentially guarantees a secular form of government by not only guaranteeing to each the freedom to practice their own religion (“The Free Exercise Clause” of the First Amendment) but also prohibiting government from favoring any one religion over others (“The Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment). For an ideological faction whose adherents generally fancy themselves the defenders of the Constitution, it’s remarkable how eager some members of that faction are to disregard and undermine that very same Constitution in both letter and spirit.

The word “socialism” has been applied very broadly, especially in service to a particular ideological agenda, to societies that are widely divergent in form. At one extreme are a group of societies that are characterized by autocratic, oligarchical governments that completely dismantle market economies and replace them with command economies. These have all been horrible failures. At the other extreme (in normal usage) are the “democratic socialist” countries such as some Scandinavian countries have at times been, and these have been by and large quite successful (robust economies, excellent quality of life, extensive individual rights, and far more equitable than average).

More generally, all modern developed nations are, in reality, a hybrid of robust market economies, popular sovereignty, large administrative states, a strong commitment to rule of law, and a thoroughly secular (non-religious) and civil (non-military) government. All nations that participated in the post-WWII economic boon were characterized by this combination of institutional qualities, bar none. To call them “socialism” would mean that the word “socialism” must be understood to encompass both a certain category of failed states, and the unique category of the most successful states in world history (i.e., all successful, fundamentally capitalist countries).

The point of using the word “socialism” to describe both is to obfuscate the fact that some of the states being so labelled comprise the entire set of modern prosperous, free nations on Earth, and to imply instead that all states so labelled actually belong to the set of failed states known by that label. In other words, it is an attempt to relabel all modern, prosperous, free nations as something other than what they are, and to pretend that a proposed extremist form that has never described any actual successful nation on Earth is what defines that category instead! It is a triumph of meaningless, cultish rhetoric over anything even vaguely resembling reality.

There are legitimate debates to be had about the issues that divide us, about the right balance between public investment in human and material infrastructure and laissez-faire market dynamics, about the degree to which we should be committed to maximizing equality of opportunity and how to go about it, about to what extent we should try to consider possible future consequences of current policies and to what extent we should focus exclusively on present outcomes, about, in general, what works and what doesn’t work, what best serves our liberty and prosperity and well-being and what doesn’t. My fondest hope and highest aspiration is that we become a nation that has those debates, as reasonable people of goodwill, wise enough to know that none of has all of the answers, working together in a complex and subtle world to do the best we can; to be, in other words, a nation of people who decline to drink various flavors of “the Kool-Aid,” and choose to be thoughtful, open-minded, and constructive citizens instead.

The purpose of my blog, Colorado Confluence, and this Facebook page that links to it is to promote the application of reason and imagination to evidence and accumulated knowledge and understanding in service to humanity. All points of view, all arguments, are welcome. If you have an actual argument to make, please feel welcome to make it: Understanding and insight are served by robust debate (the opposite of “drinking of the Kool-aid” of insulated dogmas blindly adhered to). The informationless, unreasoning, and generally meaningless one-liners about “drinking the Kool-aid” of secularism (ironically completely inverting the meaning of the phrase), and equating “secularism” and “socialism” in a catchy cliche about “calling the whole thing off,” are modalities best suited to other kinds of forums, offered for other purposes.

That got her goat! Here’s how she replied:
well, I guess you told me, huh? I will leave the rest to your ‘enlightened’ state of mind! My point being that your insulting comments regarding the disingenuousness of Santorum feed into the rhetoric we hear everyday in the main stream media. There has been a war against Christianity in this country for decades..actually, around the entire world! Mr. Bloomberg in NYC should heed your words about the ‘imprematur-lessness (sic) of churches who have used public buildings for worship when school is not in session….Other public entities would be smart to heed these same words when they are insistent on shoving other religious tenets down our throats by installing foot washes and prayer rooms in their institutions! IMO, secularism and socialism go hand in hand and both ideas are ruining this great country…Our Forefathers must be turning in their graves! God Help the USA! Goodbye….
And, finally, my response to that:
The NYC law prohibiting the use of public schools for religious purposes is currently in the courts, where that balance between Free Exercise and non-Establishment will be struck. The main problem is that the congruency of non-school use days to some religious holy days and not others (Jewish and Christian, but not Islamic) may be construed as an implicit favoring of those religions that [have] their sabaths on the weekend. It’s a subtle question; my guess is that the courts will find that the NYC law is unconstitutional, and I would agree with that decision.

Your comments about the allowance of Islamic practices as well as Christian and Jewish, on an equal footing, merely goes to demonstrate your theocratic rather than constitutional orientation. Islam, according to our Constitution, is neither to be privileged nor discriminated against, and, if we fall short at all as a nation, it is in the latter rather than former error, one which you are determined to increase rather than decrease. You are of a mindset that Christianity should be privileged, and that the failure to do so is a failure of our national conviction. But that simply is not how our nation is Constituted. We are not a theocracy; we are a Constitutional Republic.

What’s most remarkable to me about her last comment was the equation of adhering to the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, permitting and accommodating the free exercise of non-Judeo-Christian religions, with “shoving (those religions) down (the) throats” of those who don’t adhere to them! The notion that Christians in America are more discriminated against than Muslims, that Islam is “shoved down the throats” of Christians but that Christianity is just one religion among many, in no way privileged and in no way seeking to be, is so incredibly ludicrous, it simply boggles the imagination that anyone could argue such a position.

Our national debates aren’t over whether to permit Islamic and Christian religious imagery to co-exist, but rather whether to continue to privilege Christianity in the ways that it has been historically privileged, to use exclusively Christian imagery and language in official displays and communications relating to holidays and other religious events. It is not that these would-be theocrats want no religion shoved down anyone’s throat, but rather that they want their religion exclusively shoved down everyone’s throat!

This isn’t just an issue of religious zealotry and hypocricy and anti-constitutionalism pretending to be the opposite; it’s one example of the more fundamental divide in American politics, one which tracks the left-right divide to some extent but not exactly, one which is where our focus should be as we work on both ourselves as individuals and the nation and world to which we belong. That divide is between ideologies which favor irrationality over reason, and belligerent tribalism/sectarianism over a commitment to humanity. The solution is not to remain entrenched in the struggle to ensure that our own substantive certainties prevail over opposing substantive certainties, but rather to promote a greater and more widespread commitment to procedures and attitudes which systematically favor reason over irrationality, and humanity over various forms of bigotry and belligerence.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

One would think that such a title could only be given to an attempt at humor, for how could such a question ever be taken seriously? But, though humor may well be the highest form of human discourse, I’m not attempting it today. Today, I am using the following absurd line of reasoning as a springboard into a steam of thought: If “man is made in God’s image,” and that image (i.e., form) is one that defecates, then why wouldn’t God defecate as well?

The perhaps tasteless title of this essay is meant as a portal into a labyrinth of questions and contemplations about the nature of the divine and its relationship to both the physical universe and to human beings. Given that one large swathe of humanity has anthropomorphized our gods since at least the days of Homer and Hesiod, it seems reasonable to ask: Just exactly how anthropomorphic are they? The Greek (and other Indo-European) gods, for instance, were not so transcendent that they didn’t squabble and feud, engage in petty jealousies and vendettas, and in general act very much as ordinary humans do, albeit with a bit more bite to their bark. Yahweh, the direct prototype of our own Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, was prone to fits of anger and, certainly in the case of Job, enjoyed playing cruel mind-games to test the loyalty of his followers.

If we are “made in God’s image,” and that image includes some traits that go beyond the mere superficial appearance, then where, exactly, is the line drawn? And if at some place that someone would be willing to point to, why there?

This isn’t meant, as it may appear at first glance, to denigrate religious beliefs, or trivialize the concept that forms the core of this particular inquiry (i.e., the posited self-similarity of deity and human being). I have indeed argued so robustly against dogmatic atheism (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization) that the person arguing the opposite point of view became quite upset with me, and, prior to that, made a similar argument in “Is Religion A Force For Good?”. I have also previously posited my own theory about the human “resemblance” to god in terms of a particular conceptualization of “consciousness,” which may be in part (in one of its forms) understandable as mutating and proliferating packets of information competing for reproductive success (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). (More broadly, this particular conceptualization of consciousness identifies it as the underlying fabric of the almost infinitely complex and subtle systemicness of nature.)

To be clear, I neither praise nor condemn religion per se. I praise imaginative, disciplined, compassionate wonder, and condemn dogmatic, divisive, destructive false certainty. It doesn’t matter to me whether the former takes the form of religion, nor whether the latter takes the form of secular ideology (or atheism itself). We see the defects of dogma in realms far removed from religion, and too often too close to home. Not only do we see it in a nationalistic American ideology which can justify any degree of violence toward any number or type of “other,” but also among those who claim to oppose this error. There are too many on the Left as well as the Right who have turned their ideology into just another blind dogma, and rally to it as just one more incarnation of the tribalistic impulse against which progressivism should most staunchly stand.

Returning to the title question, if god and humans share a form, why wouldn’t gods defecate? And if gods don’t defecate, what does it mean that “man is made in (their) image”? Isn’t it a bit bizarre to think that God merely has some human-like form or appearance, without anything beneath the image? One would think that God would be more, rather than less, “substantial” than a human being, more than an empty image, more than a mere shell of the organic replica, more than a facade encasing nothing.

Ironically, it is less the facade which is similar, than the processes which that facade encompasses. Humans are less the physical image of God than the functional image of God, an echo of an echo of the fabric of “consciousness” that forms the coherent universe, creating new echos of its own (see The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). By embracing this step away from the literal and toward the literary, we open up the beautiful imagery and insight of all the world’s religions, reaping their allegorical wisdom without becoming entangled in their thorny vines of blind dogma and irrational reductionism.

Before I answer the title question, I must be explicit about what I mean by “deities.” In this context, deities are our representations of the natural superordinate systemic layers of manifested consciousness that comprise our universe. The god or gods imagined to be the creator of life on Earth is our representation of the process of evolution, a process which preceded, produced, and is the prototype of our own human consciousness. Our imagery representing the complex dynamical systems of which the universe is comprised, always more complex and subtler than our minds can grasp, are the deities that populate that universe, that we fruitfully imagine and conceptualize not just in terms of our reductionist sciences, but also in our metaphors and stories and awe-inspired incarnations, allowing our minds to grasp aspects of that wonderful sublime systemic complexity in ways that elude mathematical models and cause-and-effect paradigms. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s focus not on the imagery we use, but on the systems it represents.

With this definition of “deity” in mind, and for no good reason other than to let the question continue to act as an enzyme on our mind, we can answer the title question. On one level, deities both do and don’t “defecate,” because deities both are and aren’t like human beings. Lacking a literal human body with a literal human digestive system, they do not engage in an identical process of waste discharge that humans do. But, being systems in the fractal organization of nature, of which we are a self-similar set of sub-strata, they engage in analogs of our process of defecation. Natural systems are open systems, parts of larger systems, a tangle of overlapping and encompassing processes in which the outputs of one form the in-puts for another. Just as human (more generally, animal) feces provides food and fertilizer for other organisms, so too does the Earth itself take in enormous meals of energy from the Sun, and emit into space that which passed through its systemic processes.

On another level, it might be argued that the universe is by definition a closed system, and that therefore it can emit no waste that is taken up by larger or external systems. So, while deities may defecate, one might argue that the deity, the monotheistic God, doesn’t.

Of course, these “answers” to the title question aren’t really what matter (nor are they particularly meaningful; any “answer” that followed similar thought processes would be just as accurate and useful); the attitude and habit of looking at the world and universe from a variety of different and novel angles are. Asking the question is what matters, even though the question itself is superficially trivial and ridiculous, because we pry open our understandings not by staying locked into the familiar and normal, but by finding unfamiliar and uncharted mental paths down which to wander and wonder.

At core, the title question is a whimsical version of a more basic and familiar question: Where is the line between the spiritual and material, the sacred and mundane? I think that the highest forms of spirituality erase that line, and instead see everything as divine, nothing as mundane. All lives are a glorious story, all of nature an expression of that ubiquitous consciousness that we cast as God or gods or animistic spirits or the Tao…. All of our tools for exploring it, including both our robust and far-reaching imaginations and our more anchored, disciplined processes of applying reason to evidence, can and should articulate into one single enterprise.

The more we, as individuals and in groups, can gravitate toward this realization, toward a disciplined commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and humility all in service to human welfare, and, even if only by extension, therefore to the welfare of this wonderful planet on which we live, the more surely we will move forward into the far brighter future we are capable of creating together.

The obstacles to this are enormous and ubiquitous, within each of us and throughout our national and regional societies. Here in America, a political and cultural force that has long festered has taken one of its most concentrated forms in opposition to this vision of who we are and who and what we can be, clinging instead to a divisive and regressive set of dogmatic convictions, and, by doing so, struggling to drag us all down against those of us struggling to lift us all up. It is an old story with a new veneer, humanity being humanity’s own worst enemy, inflicting on ourselves a tragedy born only of small minds, hardened hearts, and shriveled imaginations.

But there is another force among us more insidious than this movement of organized ignorance and belligerence which inflicts such suffering on us, that is an unwitting partner to it, more similar than different when examined closely: It is non-engagement, indifference, a recoiling from the challenge of confronting the obstacles to our collective welfare, whether in terror or despair or just due to a lack of will. Those who simply live their own lives and let the currents of human history sweep them along are complicit in the suffering and injustice inflicted by those more explicitly motivated by ultra-individualistic and ultra-nationalistic (and anti-intellectual, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and just generally hateful and destructive) ideologies, because in both cases it is a case of people rejecting our shared purpose, our shared humanity, our interdependence and shared responsibility to one another.

So, just as “all roads lead to Rome,” all questions (even “Do Deities Defecate?”) lead to one answer: We are challenged, individually and collectively, to exercise our imaginations, our reason, our compassion, our humility, and our will in disciplined and dedicated service to humanity, in service to this wonderful Consciousness of which we are a part, living with minds and hearts and hands reaching ever farther into the essence of what is in order to cultivate in that fertile soil the endlessly wonderful garden of human existence.

And may the deities continue to defecate on it….

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Most readers are aware that the title phenomenon is commonplace in human affairs, but, especially in the blogosphere, it is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that the direct and constant encounter with it is overwhelming. On various blogs and comment boards, I have found that merely by relentlessly questioning people’s assumptions and conclusions, arguing on-topic and without ad hominems, I have consistently become a lightening rod for the most persistent, obsessive, and abusive vitriol imaginable. I regularly attract virtual stalkers and harassers, some of whom react with an almost Tourette-like reflexiveness to any scent of my existence.

On a prominent (and, in many ways, exceptionally good) Colorado political blog on which I participated for years, after such experiences repeated at an accelerating rate over that entire period of time, in an email exchange with the nominally anonymous owner of the blog, I felt as though I had stepped through the looking glass, for this individual (who, along with his real or imaginary partners, strives mightily to assume an aura of disembodied authority, using the first person plural in all self-references, habitually assuming a dismissive and disdainful tone), for he ascribed the vitriol to me, while blithely exonerating the stalkers, harassers, and frothers-at-the-mouth, implicitly agreeing with them that the publication of relentless intellectual arguments that cause discomfort in others is what is the true affront to human decency.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim, and have never claimed, that my personal defects and faults are not a part of this dynamic. Clearly, I could be more diplomatic, more solicitous of other people’s sensibilities, less “pompous” and “condescending” (some of the kinder descriptors of me favored by my detractors). I won’t try to determine to what extent these perceptions of my personality are an artifact of the broader dynamic I am describing, and to what extent they are truly my own, but I will admit that I believe that both components are implicated.

But our humanity is always a part of the equation, our imperfections and personality flaws always affecting our interactions. Why would extreme, explosive, obsessive expressions of rage or hatred be considered less vitriolic than the perceived pomposity and condescension of compelling and focused arguments? Both the “more legitimate” reason that such perceived pomposity and condescension communicates a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own reality, and the “less legitimate” reason that the perception of such pomposity and condescension is an artifact of one’s own investment of ego in the false certainties that are being challenged, point to the same thing: Such discussions are perceived in terms of competing egos unless great pains are taken to ensure that they are perceived otherwise.

In a sense, I’ve just brought into question my own premise described in the title of this post: Is such “belligerence” really irrational? Isn’t it, on some level, true that what those others perceive as my pomposity and condescension is, in fact, an expression of my ego gorging on my ability to “win” an argument? And isn’t that an aggressive act, a kind of assault on others that invokes legitimate feelings of rage?

Yes, on some level I think that this is true. But it is also like resenting your opponent in an athletic match for out-performing you, because those same people are engaging in the same “competition,” striving to assert their own egos through their arguments on the topics of discussion. One woman, for instance, insisted that to believe in god was to adhere to a neolithic absurdity, and became very upset with me when I presented what I think was a pretty sophisticated argument why this is not necessarily so (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, though the ad hominems are omitted). Another became very hostile when I challenged her passionate insistence that the best thing progressives could do now would be to withdraw all support from the Democratic Party. Another regular poster reacted with similar (though more clenched) hostility when I effectively challenged his assumptions on education reform. In all these, and other, cases, their egos were no less invested than mine; they, no less than me, in a contest that they wished to win.

Yet, it all depends on what set of rules you have implicit in your mind while playing this “game.” For instance, few if any regulars on the blog in question appear offended by, or even cognizant of, the disdainful and dismissive aura of disembodied, superior authority cultivated so assiduously by the blog owner(s), though I find it far more “pompous” and “condescending” than my own form of argumentation, which never fails to admit to my own defects and humanity, but focuses intensely on mobilizing compelling arguments both untempered by social niceties and unreliant on ad hominem attacks.

I believe that this is because the rules of their game are: 1) Do not ever challenge the premise that, while people have strongly held conflicting opinions, the goal is not to reduce mutual false certainty and arrive together at improved understandings, but rather only to win political victories that advance one’s own dogmatic beliefs at the expense of the dogmatic beliefs of others; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to be vitriolic, disdainful, and dismissive of others, if you do so without violating rule number 1.

In other words, it’s acceptable to argue a position, but only if it is done without any intention of actually challenging the assumptions and conclusions of others; rather, it must be done in service to superficial political victories rather than any attempt to affect human consciousness. This is why it’s just as acceptable among these particular actors to focus in on completely irrelevant issues with which they might score political points as to make a compelling argument, and, in fact, more acceptable to do the former than to do the latter if the latter is done in a way which too profoundly challenges people’s assumptions and conclusions.

This was in fact summed up by one poster on the same blog, less inclined to vitriol and less antagonistic toward me than others, who counseled that I shouldn’t keep asking people to question all that they think is true. I replied that that’s not such a bad role to play, and there should be room on each forum for at least one person to play it.

And that gets to the crux of the matter: He or she who plays it becomes the center of a storm of vitriol for playing it, because what people least want is to have their comfortable false certainties challenged. One of the posters recently most antagonistic to me, assuming the job of posting constant, meaningless, snide attacks following every comment or post of mine, summed this up in an unintentionally flattering way: He wrote, “just drink the hemlock already, Socrates” (the point being that Socrates, who was famous for forcing people to question their own assumptions and conclusions, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by inducing them to question the certainties that the Athenian people considered sacrosanct).

A column printed in last Sunday’s Denver post, by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, “The Op-Ed Pages Are No Tea Party” (http://www.projo.com/opinion/columnists/content/CL_froma21_08-21-11_C7PQ3VU_v11.390da.html), addresses one aspect of this issue: People resent compelling arguments that challenge their beliefs. As she writes:

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commentators outside the group see what’s up and don’t bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It’s not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It’s a strong argument that hits the bull’s-eye.

I would amend what she says slightly: It’s not only orchestrated campaigns that drive out other voices, but spontaneous group think, especially the highly aggressive and vitriolic kind. This is one aspect of the dynamic I’ve experienced, particularly on that Colorado political blog on which I participated frequently for a long period of time: While I was quite popular at first (winning or being runner up in their periodic “poster of the months” elections several times in succession), the belligerent voices of resistance to the role I was playing grew in number and intensity, while the calmer and more friendly voices correspondingly fell silent.

It wasn’t, I think, initially that very many of the latter group defected to the former, but rather that they ceded the field to them, loathe to get mired in the muck of contesting those angry voices. Then, over time, the growing imbalance creates a self-reinforcing impression of general consensus, that more and more people feel compelled to either acquiesce or actively adhere to. In fact, the one poster who has been most relentless most recently, appears to have been so to gain entry into the “clubhouse” with the sign out front “no stinky Steve Harveys allowed.” The vitriol serves to help consolidate a group-identity defined by the unwritten rules I stated above, rules which I consistently violated.

This dynamic permeates political discourse and political action, pushing out the questioning of assumptions or the quest for anything transcendent of current realities, enshrining and entrenching a certain kind of shallow ritualism, a competition of relatively arbitrary (and underexamined) opinions, played out professionally by strategists and tacticians rather than by those whose aspirations look beyond those exigencies of politics. And all of this is in service to the definition of borders between in-groups and out-groups, ultimately the least progressive and most regressive of all human forces.

An example of the professional political dimension is apparent in a correspondance I had with Senator Mark Udall’s office. First, I want to emphasize that I like Senator Udall, and do not aim this criticism particularly at him or his staff; it is, rather, indicative of something endemic to politics as it is currently practiced, and understandably so.

I sent Senator Udall (and a slew of others) a synopsis of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” proposal (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). His office sent back a letter, signed by him, blandly thanking me and stating his belief that, yes, reason and goodwill are laudable goals. It was clear that whoever responded to my proposal either did not read it or did not understand it, because it really has very little to do with some bland reaffirmation that “reason and goodwill are good” (rather, it’s a detailed, systemically informed plan for how to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in public opinion and policy formation).

The generic response from his office, totally missing the point, to a novel idea reaching beyond the mud-pit of politics is illustrative of how foreign these concepts (i.e., reason and goodwill) really are to politics, so beaten out of the actual practice that the mention of them triggers a reflexive dismissal of the reference as naively oblivious to political reality. As I said, I don’t really blame Senator Udall and his staff: This is how they’ve been trained and socialized. This is what experience has taught them. And that, combined with the time pressures on them and the volume of correspondence they receive virtually guarantees such a knee-jerk response (if any response is given at all).

Neither among the rank-and-file, nor at the highest levels, can we easily break through our investment in our current level and form of consciousness. Among the chattering masses, pushing in that direction violates a jealously guarded norm of conduct. Among the seasoned professionals, it violates the perceived lessons of history and experience. But it is precisely the most profound and important of all challenges facing us.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

(The following is an exchange that took place on another blog. I have omitted some other interjections by other participants.) IP: If you can give me demonstrable proof that can be duplicated in a lab that there is a god, I will concede the point; until then you are talking about an imaginary invisible sky fairy. Key point being something imaginary. I can imagine unicorns pooping rainbows while being ridden by mermaids and leprechauns, that doesn’t make it real.

SH: The real problem here is that people think “reality” in general is something hard and fast, when it is something more complex and fluid than what we hold in our mind, where it is reduced to conceptualizations with which we can work. The more abstract the concept, the more tenuous its representation of reality, but that doesn’t make the concept useless or meaningless. Those who reject it because it seems literally preposterous are making a mistake very similar to those who accept it as literal truth.

IP: Then for you the concept of schizophrenia doesn’t work, because schizophrenia is based on the idea that their reality doesn’t match our reality.

SH: You’re sort of right. We live in a shared reality, intersubjectively produced over the ages, with an imperfect but real connection to “objective” reality. Those whose individual realities diverge too dramatically from that intersubjective reality are considered insane, a condition that can be the result of anything from an unusually creative and insightful mind, to an internal cognitive landscape that has trouble articulating with our shared cognitive landscape. The latter condition leads to real problems, both for the individual and for society, but the reduction of it to a simple pathology, one pole in a dichotomy defined by the absence or presence of a mental illness, is one of those concepts of ours that tracks reality very imperfectly, and in many ways dysfunctionally. Our current overreliance on psychotropic drugs, based on a largely fabricated history of “rebalancing chemical imbalances in the brain,” is one consequence of that divergence between our popular (and professionally dominant) conceptualization, and the ever-elusive reality.

IP: Actually I think that the outdated need to rely on a concept from the Neolithic Era, ie god, is a mental illness. People needed a god to explain things like how the sun rose and set. Science has explained how that has happened. The need, then, for a god is outdated and simplistic. If I do x, then my imaginary god will give me y. It seems silly to me.

SH: Let’s look at some of the factors that generated that “outdated” concept that has existed throughout human history, all around the world, in virtually every culture in every time and place.

1) We live in a world and universe that is mindbogglingly complex, and are gradually realizing that a biological rather than physical paradigm best captures that complexity. The science of chaos, of complexity, is the science of non-linear living systems, and applies to many systems that we have normally conceptualized as non-living.

2) Consciousness is one of the elements of that universe. In the modern tradition of human exceptionalism, we atheists have come to see human consciousness as just a happenstance product of random forces, and yet, we see echoes of it all around us, in evolution (which looks remarkably like a conscious and purposeful progression, the one which, coincidentally, produced something that resembled it: Human consciousness). There’s nothing stupid or absurd about conceptualizing the universe in terms of consciousness (not human consciousness, but something more diffuse and fundamental) rather than in terms of mechanics. In fact, that seems to be the direction in which logic and evidence lead.

3) Our minds are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Even mathematics, that least poetic of conceptual languages, is essentially a set of metaphors disciplined into a complex system of logical thought. To metaphorically conceptualize this living universe, this complexity and subtlety of which we are a part, this coherence which transcends our capacity for comprehension, in the forms of gods and spirits and supernatural forces, is no less “off the mark” than to claim that we live in a dead, mechanical universe. Both are imperfect conceptualizations of an almost infinitely complex and subtle reality.

4) The real problem, on both sides of this equation, is not understanding the nature of our conceptualizations, and of our relationship to reality. We never hold within our minds an exact representation of a precise and unambiguous reality, but rather reduce a complex and incomprehensible reality to dimensions and forms we can grasp. World mythology has produced marvelous packages of complex and subtle thought with which to track that complex and subtle reality. Understanding that our error is in taking our conceptualizations literally rather than in embracing this or that imperfect conceptualization would be the cure to the problem you perceive.

5) In my opinion, someone who only understands a river in terms of hydrodynamics and the hydrological cycle and not at all in terms of singing spirits dancing their way from mountain springs to frothing seas, has a less complete understanding than someone who triangulates a bit more, and understands a river in various ways, through various modalities.

6) Concepts of god and gods and supernatural forces can enrich our understanding of our world, of nature, of ourselves, or they can form reified false idols that divide us and blind us to the complexities and subtleties of the world around us and within us. It is not the concepts that are at fault when the latter occurs, but rather how we use them and how we relate to them.

IP: In all of your 6 points you didn’t address the simple premise that the concept of god was started in our Neolithic past. All people had a Neolithic past so the fact that people came up with a god to explain natural phenomena is not unusual. People also lived in caves in the Neolithic era. Why should we hold on to a concept that doesn’t work and is divisive. Religion has killed more people than any other force on this planet, no god, no religion. The world would be much safer and peaceful without god.

SH: Lots of concepts began in our Neolithic past, including the concepts of red, orange, yellow, blue, green, etc., and the concepts of up and down, forward and backward, probably love and hatred, right and wrong, joy and sorrow, and many others of enduring value. Whether such concepts retain their utility has nothing to do with when they originated.

Personally, I do agree that we could do better than to cling to Neolithic conceptualizations of god, and even to the very non-Neolithic developments of those original conceptualizations, that have led through the Mesopotamian religions, to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheisms with all of their trappings (and through other cultural pathways to Buddhism, Taoism, various polytheisms, and a variety of tribal religions).

But it is not some conceptualization of god that is divisive; rather it is the illusion of exhaustive absolutes that the world and universe can be reduced to, such as whether there is or isn’t a god, and, if so, which particular version is the one true one.

Some things are relatively amenable to such reductionism, and those things tend to fall within the mathematical and observable ranges of phenomena. Not all phenomena, nor all subjects of human contemplation, fall within those ranges, and so not all are so reducible.

There are two ways of formulating your final statement, taking into account the reality of differing perspectives and conceptualizations: 1) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted my one absolute truth as THE one absolute truth,” and 2) “The world would be much safer and more peaceful if everyone accepted the variable reducibility of reality, and accepted complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity as fundamental aspects of reality beyond which we may not be capable of further reduction.”

“Everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is no god” belongs to the first category, and is essentially the same as “everyone should just accept the absolute truth that there is only one god, and it is the one described by my religion.”

Clearly, there is no easy cure to our divisiveness, because even the suggestion that we adhere to less literal, more flexible, more subtle and accommodating conceptualizations of reality is divisive, in that all of those who strongly adhere to some absolute dogma or another will fight tooth and nail against any such suggestion!

Or, to put it more simply, the world would be a much safer and more peaceful place without dogmatic certainty, particularly dogmatic certainty regarding what are essentially metaphorical conceptualizations of reality, including the dogmatic certainty of atheism.

You think that it is an absolute and irrefutable fact that there is no god. My dad was a devout atheist, who shared your perspective completely. But his religion was as divisive as anyone else’s.

The irony is, of course, that even my own devout epistemological (rather than ontological) relativism is divisive, in much the same way, because any position vigorously held implies and inevitably generates (if one doesn’t already exist) an antithesis which is also vigorously held.

But, just to be clear, I think that your certainty that there is no god is as arbitrary as anyone else’s that there is a god. We atheists think of our consciousness as unique in the universe, or as some kind of anomaly in an otherwise unconscious mechanical universe.

But observation throws this into doubt: Clearly, what we experience as human consciousness is on a continuum with what other forms of life experience. When we see a spider scurry away to save itself, it looks a lot like a small, scared little creature acting like a miniature version of a human being. We know that it isn’t, but this resemblance isn’t quite completely arbitrary either; it is a product of the same dynamic which produced human beings (the one in which genes in competition with one another cluster together and produce vehicles for their relative reproductive success), and the resemblance is due to being a product of that process following a logic inherent to being such a product.

And what is so fundamentally different between an individual organism and an ecosystem, or a human society? The latter is a diffuse version of the former, with packets of information transmitted across generations forming into systemic, coherent, enduring wholes. Just because we subjectively experience our own consciousness doesn’t mean that something similar in essence isn’t a basic part of the fabric of reality. And the more we explore the underlying nature of that reality, the more support we discover for that conceptualization, scientifically and mathematically.

So why wouldn’t we conceptualize that wondrous, sublime, infinitely complex global, universal “consciousness,” that is the coherence and systemicness of the universe, in ways that are accessible to our imaginations? I disagree with you about the net value of religion: The world would have been greatly impoverished without world mythology, its brilliant stories, its framings of reality in rich and colorful ways.

It’s no coincidence that the ancient society that had the richest mythology also had the richest natural philosophy: Both are aspects of the same human imagination, working with the same materials, in much the same ways. We would not very likely have our wonderful florescence of scientific knowledge without a concomitant florescence of religious wonder.

Not only ancient Greece, but also modern Europe, were characterized by these two working in tandem. The modern European era was born with the Renaissance, which was an aesthetic rediscovery of classical forms, and the Reformation, which was a reinvigoration of religious energy. The Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment followed on their heels.

Religion isn’t the enemy: Dogma is. Believing in god isn’t the enemy; believing in a rigid reality which neatly reduces to our conceptualizations of it on all dimensions is. What would “save” us isn’t an end to religious thought, but a beginning to a deeper and more subtle and more open sense of wonder that takes that thought a step further, and synthesizes it with our scientific and philosophical and mathematical thought. Our future hope isn’t in contracting our minds and imaginations to fit within one preferred package, but expanding them to flow among ultimately compatible channels, exploring the wonder of a world far beyond our wildest imagination, and the potential of human consciousness more fully liberated and mobilized.

IP: I am more comfortable with confucianism and buddhism because there is no god, it is a philosophy more than a dogmatic set of beliefs.

On [this blog] there is someone who believes that the earth is 6k years old, because that is what his preacher told him. The enforced and celebrated ignorance of modern religion and dogmas are antithetical to intelligent and rational discussions….

SH: Beliefs range from more to less subtle, more or less well tracking an almost infinitely complex reality. You scoff at monotheists who scoff at polytheists who scoff at animists. Science was largely born from monotheism (just as monotheism was from polytheism, and polytheism was from animism), the latter having reduced the arbitrariness of Creation from a chaos of competing gods and spirits to a coherent single systemic whole and thus making it more amenable to systematic investigation.

Some aspects of some religions are incompatible with science, asserting as matters of faith (ie, beliefs insulated from evidence and skepticism) issues of causation and systemic dynamics that are, in fact, better understood through scientific methodology than religious narratives. Some aspects of religions occupy completely separate realms, going where science can’t really go because science doesn’t address all questions (particularly questions of value or judgment). And then there are realms to which both apply, but in different ways (such as the celebration of wonder and awe at the incredible complexity and subtlety of the world and universe we live in).

It’s fine to advocate for more rather than less subtlety, and to critique those who fail to continue to strive to do so. It’s folly to believe that you have found the end point of that journey, and to scoff at others for having failed to find the one absolute truth of which you are aware and they are not.

IP: Does your god care what food you eat?

SH: Psycholinguist Stephen Pinker, in How The Mind Works, posited that religious dietary restrictions evolved as a means of preventing members of more economically marginal societies from defecting to richer neighboring societies by making their food less attractive. So, for instance, in the case of Jewish dietary restrictions, shell fish would be found in neighboring coastal societies but not among the Hebrew desert nomads themselves, and pork would be found among (wealthier) sedentary populations rather than (poorer) nomadic ones.

The point isn’t that many religious ideas and proscriptions can’t be better understood as products of human history and psychology than as products of a divine mandate, but rather that different modalities of thought can coexist, and, where they reinforce rather than obstruct their respective competencies, can be useful and productive rather than dysfunctional and destructive.

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu were all highly religious men, who used their religious convictions in service to their charismatic leadership and their missions of social justice and universal goodwill. The Civil Rights Movement in America benefited enormously from the social organizational capital of the southern black church infrastructure, without which that movement might never have happened, and certainly would have had to have happened with far less capacity for grass roots organizing than it in fact had at its disposal.

The goal of peace and human welfare is not best served by insisting that one’s own conceptual tyranny prevail over all others, whether it is the conceptual tyranny of a dogma that contains literal gods or one that does not (e.g., Marxism, Libertarianism, Dogmatic Atheism, etc.). Conceptual false idols don’t have to be supernatural to be socially destructive.

The goal of peace and human welfare is best served by recognizing that we have a plethora of conceptual modalities at our disposal, and that those modalities have varying uses and competencies, that they can be articulated in ways which reinforce rather than undermine one another, and that doing so provides us with more rather than less insight.

The fact that the opposite also occurs, that the incompetencies of each modality assert themselves at the expense of the competencies of the others, is something to strive to transcend, whether it is religious assertions about how faith is more reliable for ascertaining the validity of factual and causal information than is scientific methodology, or pseudo-scientific assertions that science “disproves” something which is a conceptual rather than factual matter.

One of the big obstacles to making this leap is the misconception that the products of our imagination are distinct from “reality,” and that reality is understood by some means other than our imagination. In truth, our imagination is our portal onto reality, our means of tracking it with our minds. Some of the modalities we use are good for some purposes, and may be more attractive to some people; while others are good for other purposes and may be more attractive to other people. But the notion that some of these modalities of human imagination are “right” and some are “wrong” is an unfortunately unimaginative position to take!

SH: (In response to another poster insisting that the burden is on IP to prove that God doesn’t exist, since no one in the conversation asserted that he/she/it does.) It’s a meaningless question. This is what people don’t get about the whole “do you believe in god” thing: It’s like asking “do you believe in charpadarka, a color that humans can’t perceive that occupies the spectrum of light frequencies from about 900-920 THz.”

Well, if you choose to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and then name the color “charpadarka,” then you believe in it. If you choose not to call that range of the spectrum of light not visible to the human eye a “color,” and refuse to name it, then you don’t believe in “charpadarka.”

The objective reality is what it is. It can be conceptualized in multiple ways. It makes no sense to argue about whether one or another conceptualization is “true” or not.

(No one can) prove that “God” doesn’t exist, and no one . . . can prove that “God” does exist, because “God” is a concept, just like everything else we hold in our minds to represent reality. It is not an argument over an empirically verifiable or refutable assertion, or about an empirically and analytically more or less supportable theory or paradigm; it is an argument over semantics and conceptualization, and therefore a meaningless and absurd argument to have.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(The following is a comment by David K. Williams, and my response to it, on the same Facebook thread excerpted in A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread.)

David K. Williams said:

All of your dissembling is merely a justification for the forcible implementation of your “good ideas” (after all the studying and deliberating is done) on those that do not wish to have them implemented. That is immoral.

Individual autonomy is very dangerous, indeed. So dangerous, the statists that do all of your studying and deliberating fear it.

The “progressive” movement you describe of Woodrow Wilson and FDR (and Teddy Roosevelt, for that matter) is all about the learned intellectuals with Ph.Ds knowing what is best for everyone and implementing plans via government force. I think you and I can agree with that.

You just happen to believe in the wisdom of the intellectuals. I do not. History is not on your side.

1) We are interdependent, and live within a society which imposes formal and informal constraints on us as an inherent fact of reality. You are no less trying to “forcibly implement your good ideas” on others than I am, because you are arguing for a particular public policy regime, with particular implications. You have accepted certain institutions that are founded in force, such as the definition and protection of absolute private property rights, as somehow inherent in nature (when they simply are not, but rather are themselves a political economic artifact), and therefore are blind to the fact that their forcible imposition is no more morally pure than the forcible imposition of some other version of property rights.

Don’t get me wrong: Private property has many virtues, and I defend it as an integral aspect of a well-functioning political economy. But it is NOT a moral imperative, and it is NOT the absence of force!

Private property historically came into being through violent force by some against others, a theft perpetuated across generations through inheritance, and which has implications even today. It is no coincidence that the descendants of former slaves and the former conquered indigenous population of this country are grossly overrepresented among the impoverished of this country; it is the direct consequence of the “morally unassailable” default that you have chosen to worship. Ironically, it not only leads to greater social justice to modify that regime on the margins, it also leads to greater robustness and sustainability in the production of wealth, making it the more reasonable path by all measures.

2) My statement that both too much individual autonomy and too much collectivism are dangerous (using your word) referred to the indisputable fact that error can be found on both extremes. In one moment, you deny any commitment to absolute individual autonomy, and in the next invoke it, playing a shell game rather than making an argument. So let me address the shell you’ve currently placed your pebble under, the one that insists that individual autonomy is an absolute and unassailable good, period. By that logic, individuals would have to be granted the autonomy to murder, rape, steal, drop nuclear weapons on each other, and, in general, engage in any behavior that any individual chooses and finds him or herself able to. That would be a Hobbesian paradise of the war of all against all, and a life “nasty, brutish, and short.” No semi-rational person really believes that that’s the way we should govern ourselves.

So, individual autonomy is a value with limits, a practical reality we have spent our history exploring and defining. Justice Holmes famously said, for instance, that one’s right to free speech doesn’t extend to shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, because that would be destructive mischief that we, as a society, should and must restrain. Once you recognize that individual autonomy isn’t an absolute ideal, but rather a value to be maximized in balance with other values, then if becomes completely arbitrary to argue from the position of it being an absolute ideal. The debate then becomes one regarding whether it is a value which trumps other considerations in this or that circumstance. You can weight it more or less heavily if you like, but you can’t simply circumvent the discussion of whether in this or that circumstance a commitment to individual autonomy takes priority over a commitment to our ability to function as a society and to continue our lives with some minimal degree of security and tranquility.

Yes, there are wonderful platitudes obfuscating this reality. “Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither.” But does that mean that those who would trade the liberty of individuals to build and use nuclear weapons, or to drive around in tanks armed with the most destructive of weapons, for the security of living in a society governed by the rule of law, deserve neither? No, of course not. The challenge of drawing the line continues to exist, and your insistence that it be drawn far to one side cannot be defended by any platitude or any absolute value, because even you recognize that the line does indeed need to be drawn. You are insisting on drawing it arbitrarily at one extreme. But you have no argument other than a blind religious zeal that insists that that’s where it should be drawn, a zeal which carefully dismisses all thought and analysis as the mischief of intellectuals.

3) What I advocate isn’t some pre-packaged idea that you can refer to and dismiss, but rather the notion that we should ALL strive to exercise reason and universal goodwill to the best of our ability, and to govern OURSELVES by recourse to disciplined and procedurally sound reason and goodwill to the best of our ability. Just as in all human endeavors, we do benefit from a division of labors, but it is a division of labors within the context of a democracy, in which competing interests and competing views have ample opportunity to make their case, and to advocate for their position. Ph.D.s shouldn’t have any final word, though neither should their particular expertises be thrown overboard for fear that the inclusion of expertise in our national discourse is somehow antidemocratic.

We do indeed need to include professional understandings of complex phenomena in our public policy formation, because there are in fact a multitude of complex physical, economic, geological, hydrological, and generally systemic phenomena implicated in our shared existence. The anti-intellectualism of insisting that all specialized knowledge is anathema to human welfare if ever employed in our endeavor of self-governance is so patently absurd, I marvel that anyone can continue to argue it.

4) History isn’t on my side in asserting that the product of intellectual endeavors can and does serve our collective interests? Really? Our modern, industrial, science-based, technological economy is something that most people would prefer to toss aside in favor of a pre-industrial, pre-modern existence? So, at least in some spheres of our shared existence, you would agree that intellectual endeavors have borne fruit, no?

The question is whether that general truth (that intellectual endeavors contribute to our collective welfare) applies to our self-governance. The historical evidence, despite your selective insistence to the contrary, strongly demonstrates that it does. The post-WWII economic boom, experienced only by those nations that had put in place a modern, research-oriented, procedurally heavy, scientifically enriched (complete with advisory panels to deal with all aspects of our existence) administrative infrastructure, proves me wrong? You are conveniently selective in your review of human history, serving not well-reasoned and well-evidenced conclusions, but rather only a blind ideology.

Your conclusion that “history proves me wrong” is based on selecting those instances in which some intellectual doctrine has been implemented, and has been a failure, while neglecting to include any examination of those instances in which anti-intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been failures, or those instances in which intellectual doctrines have been implemented and have been successes (including the intellectual doctrines at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, which drew heavily on Enlightenment era intellectual thought).

You are correct that intellectualism is no guarantee of success, but wrong that its inclusion, on average, leads to inferior results than its exclusion. Even the most spectacular of failed intellectual doctrines -Marxism- was not the only intellectual doctrine, or even the dominant economic doctrine, of its day (which means that competing intellectual doctrines, when and where they were implemented, led to far superior outcomes). And it is just one example of failure, cited in a vacuum. By the same logic, one could argue that human flight is impossible, because some attempts at it have failed, or that surgery is always fatal, because I can cite examples of when it has been fatal. It is such an absurd logical fallacy that, again, the marvel is that you are able to rely on it so heavily.

Furthermore, the anti-intellectualism that you espouse has a far worse track record than the intellectualism that I espouse. Though Marxism started out as an intellectual doctrine, once implemented in service to totalitarianism, it too became anti-intellectual in its orientation, persecuting intellectuals who, en masse, were active in opposing the totalitarianism in its name. In all of the totalitarian societies you cite -Soviet Russia, Nazi German, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Islamic Fundamentalist states- the governments have shared with you your anti-intellectual bias, and have persecuted rather than deferred to intellectuals in service to it.

No, we are not freed from the challenge of life on Earth by deference to intellectuals. But we would be wise to increase the efficacy of our participation in those endeavors by ever-greater inclusion of intellectual discipline, emulating our Founding Fathers and the spectacular success they achieved. Given a choice between haphazard, relatively unexamined popular assumptions, and carefully arrived at, procedurally disciplined, sensibly tentative understandings, while the former can be right and the latter wrong in any given instance, on average the latter will outperform the former. Greater good is produced in the long run, wiser decisions arrived at, by all of us paying close attention to those procedurally disciplined understandings, and forming our own understandings with a certain degree of respect for the disciplines that have proven themselves most effective at reducing error and increasing accuracy. Again, the notion that wiser conclusions are formed by avoiding such methodologies flies in the face of our historical experience, rather than being proven by it, to an extent that borders on insanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

The following is an entire (up to the moment of this posting) Facebook comment thread on a Libertarian’s Facebook page. I often infiltrate these echo-chambers, just to emphasize the distinction in how we arrive at and defend our respective conclusions. Many examples are striking, but this one, toward the end (you can skip the first third without missing much), is so perfectly illustrative of the absolute commitment to a blind ideology, a refusal to even admit to the value of being reasonable people of goodwill, or to the possibility that those who disagree could possibly have anything of merit in their perspective, that I wanted to post it here. It serves not only to emphasize the dogmatic belligerence of the modern far-right, but also as a warning to their counterparts on the far-left: All reasonable people of goodwill have to commit to reason and universal goodwill, not by assuming that our own blind ideological certainties are unassailable, but rather by acknowledging that we live in a complex and subtle world, and that we are all challenged to better develop, both individually and collectively, the disciplines and procedures that favor reason and humanity over irrationality and bigotry.

Catherine Keene but when free markets “fail” we need less freedom in the marketplace. The only thing consistent about Keynesians is their ability to defy logic.

Jawaid Bazyar Government now takes 50% of GDP. We still have poverty, drugs, homelessness, and unemployment. Guess we’ll just need 60%! or 70%! What, exactly, will be enough, Krugman et al?

Kori Fisher what was that definition of insanity again??? doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result….yeah, that’s the one.

Steve Harvey Evidence: gdp experienced historically unprecedented growth in 1934-1937 in the wake of New Deal policies (raising tax rate for hightest bracket, deficit spending); Sweden is first country to emerge from Great Depression using Keynesian eco…nomic principles (http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/Timeline.htm); both the on-set of the Great Depression, and the return of a downward spiral in late 1937, were due to fiscal policies virtually identical to those recommended by conservatives today; massive deficit spending in WWII decisively pulled America and the world out of the Great Depression; the economic outcome of Obama’s stilmulus spending in the wake of the 2008 fiscal sector meltdown exceeded all professional economic predictions of our immediate economic prospects in 2008 (including for the most stubborn lagging indicator, unemployment, which turned from increasing at an accelerating rate to increasing at a decelerating rate a month after the first stimulus package was implemented). Yeah, those crazy Nobel Prize winning economists and their wild ignorance (compared to economic sages such as yourselves) about economics….

Jahfre FireEater The Keynesian view that an economy is a machine that can be tweaked to one’s advantage without negative consequences is refuted in spades by Ludwig von Mises in his magnum opus, Human Action. As Mises says, this idea “is as old as it is bad…”

Jawaid Bazyar Harvey, you’re insane. Of course it’s easy to cherry-pick numbers you like. How about you take a look at the US unemployment rates before, during, and after our Keynesian orgy during the Great Depression.

Amy Chesser Brock Have you seen Keynes vs. Hayek round 2? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTQnarzmTOc

Steve Harvey ‎@Jawaid: Yes, look at them. I linked to the Great Depression time line in my previous message. Economic contraction follows the policies you recommend, while economic expansion follows the policies I recommend. The sustained explosion of economic growth following WWII was due to the biggest public spending project in American history (WWII armaments). Also, not a single nation on the face of the Earth partook of that post WWII economic expansion without first having a massively expensive administrative infrastructure in place, such as the one we put in place during the New Deal. There is, in fact, an optimum: Too much deficit spending for too prolongued a period causes economic collapse, just as too little for too prolongued a period causes economic contraction. Private businesses run on very much the same model (credit is the life-blood of corporations). We fail for not reducing the deficit in times of economic boon, not for increasing it in times of economic contraction.

David K Williams Jr ‎@Steve Harvey – regarding those Nobel Prize winning economists, I’ll call your Krugman & raise you a Hayek.

Jahfre FireEater LOL

Jahfre FireEater Any scheme that allows the elite to do as they please with easy financing will win an economist or a President a Nobel Prize.

Jahfre FireEater Funding for an ivy league academic economics guild, sure no problem…just keep promising those who write the checks that there will ALWAYS be another check in their checkbook.

Steve Harvey @David: Right. My point is that you’re neither. As someone who has done work in the field of economics, I recognize the legitimate debates, and don’t dismiss Hayek or Friedman the way you folks so blithely dismiss Krugman. It’s pretty clear from the empirical evidence that government spending does indeed stimulate the economy in the short run (I know of no economist who disputes that), but the question -and it remains a question, no matter how brilliant y’all assume yourselves to be- is at what point that short-term stimulus effect is outweighed by long-term drag effects. Most economists recognize that it is a largely context dependent analysis, depending on the current state of the economy, and what, precisely, the government invests in. For instance, if the government invests in public goods that have lots of complementary private goods associated with them (e.g, invests in highways, making cars a more attractive comodity to buy), with lots of forward and backward linkages (e.g., stimulates related industries upstream and downstream from that which the government has invested in), then there is likely to be a very high multiplier effect. Economics, among all of the things that we discuss in public discourse, is the least amenable to oversimplistic platitudes, which is what your ideology pretty much relies on.

Donald E. L. Johnson Dems spend to buy votes, build political careers, not fix the economy. Belief is not the issue, imho.

David K Williams Jr Steve – we can all count on death, taxes & your misplaced condescending elitism. Hayek In fact rejects government spending as a means to stimulate the economy and explains why WWII did not end the depression.

Steve Harvey David, I love the way arguments you disagree with are “elitism” (the more informed, the more elitist), but your dismissive certainty in the face of legitimate disagreement is just good ol’ fashioned common sense populism. If there’s any “elitism” to be found, it is to be found in the position that claims that there is no legitimate debate to be had, that the one truth is known, that the speaker’s position is its perfect and final expression, and all others are just wrong and misguided. I’m all for well-informed and well-reasoned debates on the complex and subtle issues that face us as a society. That’s not what you and your friends ever offer, or accept. (There are those on the right who do, but they are becoming increasingly marginalized by those who don’t).

David K Williams Jr There are plenty of arguments with which I disagree that aren’t elitist. Your arguments, however, always revolve around how smart & educated you are & us mere mortals or so silly for not agreeing.

Steve Harvey My arguments are arguments, mobilizing specifically cited information in reasoned form to defend a position arrived at in the same way. That seems to be the problem.

Donald E. L. Johnson Steve, hve you read The Forgotten Man. It shoots down all of your points.

Steve Harvey No, it doesn’t. Here’s my point: I know that I know almost nothing, and I know that the same is true of all of you. I have more than my share of formal degrees and life experience, and a good mind through which to sift it all, and, as a result, I recognize that it is a very complex and subtle world in which we live, and that our certainties about anything but the most trivial and superficial of phenomena is tentative and fallible. The more you know, the more you know that you don’t. On the left and the right, there are those who simply don’t get that, who have a favorite sacred source or secular sage who, despite being contested and him- or her- or itself fallible, is infallible in their eyes. And when people speak from that place, know absolutely and irrefutably that their own contested truth is incontestable, that is blind dogma, and pure folly. What offends David and others more than my perceived arrogance is that I argue my positions, and do so well enough that it challenges those fortified sacred false certainties, not because of any special talent of mine, but because any argument that is a genuine argument does so.

Valarie Murphy ‎@Steve, Krugman has to be dismissed; he’s always wrong.

Steve Harvey Thank you, Valarie, for illustrating my point.

Donald E. L. Johnson Steve, You’re not the only one who has had life experiences, lived through several booms and busts and read numerous books on our and the world’s political and economic history. And you’re not the only one who knows what he doesn’t know and can’t predict. We’ve all been around the track one way or another, and we have our points of view the same as you do. Ours is as valid as yours. Some of us try to be objective in assessing what’s going on, and some of us are constantly trying to learn more so that we have a better feel for what’s happening and likely to happen. Having read numerous well-researched articles and books on economics and written thousands of stories and articles about numerous companies, employers, laws, regulations and economic developments, it is my personal opinion that government spending on the kind of pork that is in Obama’s stimulous bill and in ObamaCare does nothing to stimulate the economy and in the long run kills private sector jobs.

Donald E. L. Johnson Val, Krugman’s not always wrong, but he never can be trusted to be honest. He’s Pinch’s favorite socialist, and he works hard to defend his former colleague, Ben Bernankee, and his favorite politician, Obama. Like too many academic economists, Krugman has convinced his readers that he has no intellectual integrity and that he’s just another partisan hack with a column.

Steve Harvey Yes, Donald, it’s your personal opinion, but you don’t REALLY acknowledge the possibility that you’re wrong. You don’t REALLY acknowledge that professional economists are divided on the subject (with, if anything, the weight of professional opinion against you). You read what reinforces your bias, not what challenges it, and assume that “your opinion” is the end of the story. I don’t often go there with you, but, the fact is, I consider the question of the relationship of deficit spending to economic growth to be extremely complex, and clearly not something that anyone knows the answer to. I sure don’t. There is plenty of empirical evidence which supports the conclusion that it is a short term stimulus, though you all simply define that out of existence, because it doesn’t confirm your bias. The main issue seems to be its indefinite growth, eventually swallowing up the economy. There is also the issue of balancing legitimate considerations, weighing the goal of maximizing GDP growth with the goal of maximizing true equality of opportunity and other issues of human welfare and social justice. These issues are defined out of existence by those who have a false certainty that defines all of their positions with absolute conviction. There is no real openness to a debate, no real contemplation that there might be anything imperfectly understood, no real ability to learn and grow. It’s not your conclusions that are the real problem, but rather the inflexibility with which you cling to them.

Steve Harvey This exchange inspired a little essay, called “Sacred Truths”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=2075

Steve Harvey Donald, you said ” Dems spend to buy votes, build political careers, not fix the economy.” In a survey of professional economists by The Economist magazine in 2008, 80% favored Democratic over Republican economic policies. The notion that Dems are more corrupt than Republicans is another convenient ideological bulwark, but it has no grounding in realiy. The games and strategies of electoral politics are found across the spectrum, in large part because that which works (for getting elected to office) ends up being that which is best represented. Your assumption that every belief and value those who disagree with you hold must be some nefarious attempt to do evil may serve your false certainties, but it doesn’t serve our civil discourse or our ability to govern ourselves wisely. You also said “Belief is not the issue, imho.” In other words, no criticism of your beliefs can ever be relevant, since their validity is incontravertable; the issue is, as you stated, that those who disagree with you are always wrong, by definition. All people who think this way, from across the political spectrum, do us all a disservice, by reducing our public discourse to a struggle between reason and blind ideology, rather than between competing well-reasoned positions.

Pyro Rob Steve, I think Ronald Reagan was thinking of you when he said this famous like:

“Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

Steve Harvey A strange response to the assertion that we all need to recognize the limits of our knowledge more, the need to recognize that when complex issues are legitimately contested to pretend to know that one pole in that contest is the indisputable truth is folly, and the need to keep exploring.

Pyro Rob You are mistaken, the issues are not that complex. In fact, the solutions are not that complex either.

Steve Harvey You see the difference in how we think? I recognize a complex and subtle world, with the human dimension mirroring the natural (indeed, a part of and emanation of the natural), ideas spreading and changing and merging into new ones, forming our technological and social institutional landscape, our laws and economy, our cultures and ideologies and arts and sciences. I come at it with a sense of wonder, a sense of awe, even a sense of reverence, recognizing the miracle of our existence, and the responsibility of having minds with which to engage with the reality of which we are a part, to meet our challenges and grasp our opportunities. How well we understand this dynamo of which we are a part affects how well we engage with it, how well we realize the heights of our humanity. You respond to someone who recognizes this complexity, and our constant challenge to understand it to the best of our limited abilities, never fully grasping it, by simultaneously declaring that there are no subtleties or complexities to be grasped at all, that its all very simple and fits into a few reductionist platitudes, a true hier to the Inquisitioners of old; and, at the same time, launch a quote criticizing those who do not think in that way, who recognize the complexity of the world and do not reduce it to a few simple platitudes, for thinking that they know what isn’t so? You turn reality on its head, in the most obvious of ways, and then pat yourselves on the back for the brilliance of having said something completely meaningless.

Steve Harvey Let’s capture this conversation in its bare form: Steve: None of us knows as much as we either think or pretend we do. Pyro: You’re problem is that you know things that aren’t true. Steve: Strange answer. We live in a complex world with legitimately contested issues. Pyro: You’re wrong. We live in a simple world with simple answers. Steve: So, saying that none of us knows as much as we think we do is the error of knowing things that aren’t so, while claiming that everything reduces to a few simple and indisputable platitudes is the avoidance of that error? Uh-huh. I see….

Buddy Shipley The Cartoon Bears investigate the income multiplier of con-artist, Maynard Keynes, his argument for deficit spending, to see why it doesn’t work. They discover bad assumptions, and that Keynes was contradictory on whether his multiplier would or wouldn’t cure unemployment. They find a couple of interesting clues, and get ready to tackle the math in these videos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA67E8jMq84 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vnus-Kw5Is

Buddy Shipley Whether one favors the economic theories of Keynes or Hayak, any attempt to implement policy based on either MUST be constrained by the powers and authority granted to the federal government by the Constitution. Therefore most Keynesian ideas can never be permitted because they can only be implemented through tyranny.

Keynes was a conman and The Tree of Liberty is very thirsty…

Buddy Shipley ‎”For economists the real world is often a special case.” –Edgar R. Fiedler

“Ask five economists and you’ll get five different explanations? six if one went to Harvard.” –Edgar R. Fiedler

…”Give me a one-handed economist! All my economics say, ‘On the one hand? on the other.'” –Harry S. Truman

“In economics the majority is always wrong.” –John Kenneth Galbraith

“In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.” –John Kenneth Galbraith

“An economist is someone who knows more about money than the people who have it.” –Anonymous

“An economist’s guess is liable to be as good as anybody else’s.” –Will Rogers

“Economy is too late when you are at the bottom of your purse.” –Seneca

“The economy depends about as much on economists as the weather does on weather forecasters.” –Jean-Paul Kauffmann

“The notion that big business and big labor and big government can sit down around a table somewhere and work out the direction of the American economy is at complete variance with the reality of where the American economy is headed. I mean, it’s like dinosaurs gathering to talk about the evolution of a new generation of mammals.” –Bruce Babbit

“If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.” –Peter Lynch

“If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.” –George Bernard Shaw

“When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can always count on the support of Paul.” –George Bernard Shaw

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” –Mark Twain

Steve Harvey The problem, Buddy, is not the debate, but the unwillingness to have it. I am arguing that it is a complex and subtle world, and that our best understandings are tentative and incomplete, while those arguing against me both insist that it is a simple world amenable to simple answers, that they know what those simple answers are and that all who disagree with them are wrong and dismissible as such, and, in an amazing demonstration of how conveniently constructed their reality is, that the problem with those who disagree with them is that they think they know things that aren’t true! If we have camps in our public discourse in which their absolute certainties are not open to new information or applied reason, then we have no public discourse, but rather a secularized religious war and nothing more. Thanks to folks like you, and your counterparts on the left with the same attitude (against whom I argue just as vociferously), that is exactly the condition of this country right now. As for your dismissal of the opposing side in the current economic debate, while you are right about the fallibility of expert views, you are irrational to assume that your lay views benefit from some superior insight. The problem isn’t that experts don’t know and you do, but rather that none of us does. We are operating in a complex world with imperfect knowledge and understanding. Admitting that is a necessary first step to having any kind of meaningful public discourse. For example, you dismiss the notion that public investment can have any economic stimulus effect, despite fairly overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary (to which I cited above), relying on a string of quotes and one well-worn analysis that criticizes the Keynesian multiplier. But that analysis is the definitive truth, and, even if it were, there are non-Keyneisian arguments for why government stimulus spending works under certain circumstances, such as the one I mentioned above concerning the complementarity to private goods of the public investments, and the robustness of forward and backward linkages. It may be the case that the historical evidence is an artifact of spurious relationships, that all analyses that support the notion that government spending can have a stimulus effect under certain conditions are wrong, that the 80% of economists who think so understand economics less well than you do, and that your platitude-driven conclusion is the one correct one. I’ll admit to that possibility. Let’s put all of the arguments on the table, in a mass public agreement that none of us yet knows all of the answers, and agree to have a civil public debate based on reason applied to evidence, in which all of us are committed to the historically proven processes (e.g., scientific methodology) by which to arrive at our agreed upon truths. Let’s step back from our false certainties, across the ideological spectrum, and agree to be reasonable people of goodwill working together in a complex and subtle world. How can anyone object to such a proposal?

Pyro Rob Steve, the simple problem is that the govt thinks it’s responsible for things it is not. The simple answer is to restrict the govt from doing those things. The really simple answer is to abide by the constitution as it is written.

Steve Harvey Pyro, that’s the simple problem according to one ideology, and one faction of our population, and not the other. Nor is it the unambiguous truth about what our Constitution says and means (a document whose interpretation is subject to judicial review rather than popular referendum). The challenge in a democracy (or republic, if you like), in a popular sovereignty, is to recognize competing views and interpretations, to recognize competing political and economic ideologies, and not to assume that only yours is legitimate, while all others are wrong. I disagree with your political and economic assumptions, but I am very willing to participate with you in a process which subjects all views to reason and evidence, to robust debate, to a process by which reasonable people of goodwill can better arrived at the best reasoned and most useful policies. To get to that place, ideologues have to stop insisting that there is only one truth: Their own.

Buddy Shipley No Steve. The problem is blindly assuming the “debate” is even legitimate. Keynes was a conman and the gullible refuse to accept they’ve been had, and no one wants to admit they’ve been scammed on such a scale as this.

Buddy Shipley It’s NOT a F#$%ing “ideology”!!! WTF is the matter with you? It’s the Constitution, stupid! SO many Marxist assholes, so little time.

Steve Harvey You can keep repeating variations of “We are absolutely right and those who disagree with us are absolutely wrong, case closed,” but you are only continuing to prove the depth of your blind ideology. There are legitimate economic debates, some not involving Keynesian economics at all (as I’ve noted twice already, not all analyses which arrive at the conclusion that public spending has an economic stimulus effect do so via a Keynesian analysis). You dismiss the opposing view, and insist on your own infallibility. I say we are all fallible, and the only way to frame that universal fallibility in a manner which best serves reason is to commit to the processes most conducive to the triumpth of reason.

Steve HarveyI’ve studied and taught the Constitution in multiple contexts, in economics, history, and law, and all Constitutional scholars that I know recognize that the document you think is so simple and straightforward isn’t at all. Many of its terms aren’t defined, and have no inherent unambiguous definition (e.g., “due process,” “general welfare,” etc.). The necessary and proper clause, the spending clause, and the commerce clause give Congress potentially expansive powers, depending on interpretation. Insisting that your interpretation is correct, often in contradiction of virtually all constitutional scholars, is indeed ideology, and not the Consitution itself. The underlying purpose of the Constitution was to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government, as its history (replacing the toothless Articles of Confederation) and its in-depth defense by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay in The Federalist Papers clearly demonstrate. It may be, in the end, that you are less omniscient that you believe, and that there is indeed room for debate in this great nation of ours.

Buddy Shipley Steve refuses to comprehend. It is not a matter of “right and wrong”! It’s the Constitution, a binding contract between and among all citizens of these United States. Neither Steve nor our Elected Officials have the RIGHT to ignore it and do as they please!! That is tyranny.

What Steve calls “platitudes” I call standing up for the liberty of individuals, upholding and defending the Constitution, which is the sworn duty of EVERY elected official! That they fail to do this makes them criminals, but the judiciary aids and abets them in their tyranny.

And fools like Steve like it that way.

Buddy Shipley Steve, you are part of the pathology that’s killing us. If ANY of the bullshit you think is “Constitutional” was legitimate, why didn’t the framers and founders implement any of it from the outset?

You just make shit up and pervert the language of the Constitution to suit your agenda du jour. YOU are one of the errors in our education system responsible for filling student’s heads with propaganda.

Steve Harvey Buddy, as I said, I’m familiar with, and committed to the Constitution. The problem is that you refer to a caricature of the Constitution rather than to the Constitution itself, and the terms of the binding contract are other than what you insist they are. Again, this is open to debate (though I am convinced, through being well-informed rather than through an arbitrary certainty, that your position is mistaken), and I do not dismiss you as wrong-by-definition the way you dismiss all those who disagree with you. I recognize that I live in a world of differing views, differing interpretations, and that our job is to put into place the most robust and rational systems for arbitrating among those disagreements. Your belief is that as long as you keep shouting more loudly, invoking more epithets and ad hominems directed toward those who disagree with you, labelling away every fact and analysis and all who articulate them that you find inconvenient, you have somehow managed to command an impenetrable fortress. It is only impenetrable in terms of how well it insulates you from contradictory evidence and argumentation; it is non-existent in terms of how well it actually defends your position in public discourse.

The title refers to two things: 1) that which people mistake for sacred truth and fortify against any critical analysis or countervailing evidence; and 2) that which is critical analysis, or, more broadly, proven procedures and disciplines in service to the immutable and inarticulable underlying coherence of our existence. I’ll distinguish between them by putting the first (but not the second) in quotation marks.

The first consists of sacred scrolls (religious documents and philosophical tomes that state or legitimate the preferred dogma) and secular sages (those pundits or scholars who give voice to the preferred dogma). The quality of the substance of the dogma is not the defining characteristic, but rather the mere fact that it is an inflexible false certainty, an opinion held not via any real analysis on the part of the holder, but rather accepted as given truth. It is an error found across the political and religious spectrum, and is more prevalent than its absence. Humans are defined more by adherence to false “sacred truths” than to true ones.

The second meaning consists of processes forged in skepticism, in service to wonder, informed by humility, unclouded by malice. It is not comprised of articulable conclusions, but rather of processes and disciplines by which to arrive at them, and by the most basic premises which give those processes and disciplines meaning.

Even so, there are “true” sacred truths that can be put into words, though, paradoxically, the first one is that there aren’t: “The Tao of which we speak is not the eternal Tao.” We don’t know as much as we think we do or pretend to, and that which we reduce to words is something less than the absolute truth.

A second sacred truth is that we are parts of a whole, that “no man is an island entire of itself,” that we are comprised of smaller systems and comprise larger ones. This is one of the few substantive sacred truths, a recognition of coherence and systemicness to ourselves and our context, because without it, the disciplines which provide windows onto that coherence have no meaning. It is basically the realization that there is a coherent and comprehensible reality within which we are working, even if none of our understandings of it are ever complete and final.

Not all sacred truths belong to the left hemisphere of the brain; not all are based on reason and the procedures derived from it. Empathy, for instance, a sense of interconnectedness, is a sacred truth, an emotional rather than rational understanding of the systemicness and coherence described above.

But emotionally based factual certainties are false “sacred truths,” not true ones. People who bend facts to their preferences, or select from legitimately disputed facts or theories according to their emotional predilictions (imbuing their preferred conclusion with a degree of certainty incommensurate with its actual conclusiveness), are engaging in the folly of adhering to “sacred truths,” rather than the wisdom of being guided by sacred truths.

This is one of the fundamental challenges we face as humanity, as a people, as individuals: To admit to the degree of uncertainty that wise humility demands, and adhere to the disciplines and emotional foundations that well serve a wise and compassionate people.

(This is the most recent in a series of essays on this topic that can be found in the fifth box, titled “Dogmatic Ideology and its Avoidance,” at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)

Topics
Recent Posts