Thursday, August 30, 2018

Conservative NY Times Editorials

I probably shouldn't write this, but I will anyway. I regularly read/skim the NY Times opinion page. With the editor on vacation, he invited people with views not typically represented in the NY Times to write the main editorial piece for a week each. Two socialists shared a week. A legal expert wrote for another. A conservative columnist (and strong supporter of the current Republican government) took the last week. He linked to a couple of articles he said were important reads, both written by conservative academics, highly regarded by the conservative columnist, at least, and I have reason to believe by many informed conservatives.

My Informants

If my Conservative or Libertarian friends want an introduction to what one educated Progressive thinks is important, here are a couple of links. I recommend you go to these and don't bother with the analysis of the Conservative writings that follows. I'm sure we can find some common ground to build on. But do as you wish. It's still a free country. At least until Progressives turn it into a centrally planned Communist oligarchy.

On the harms of economic inequality and benefits of greater equality:

You can pick your topic from that page, or watch this video for a summary:
Short version? Inequality hurts people and countries. Look at the data. Look at more data. Look at more data. It happens over and over again, and hurts people in all sorts of ways.

On government spending making things better--even for private business:

There are some great, short videos at this site. Your smart phone? Built from government funded research. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

On the need for greater equality for women and the benefits of having it:

(by a Mormon social scientist, Valerie Hudson, author of Sex and World Peace)
When laws make women physically safe on their own, when they make women equal partners in families and support women in their family choices, and when women make up a big portion of governing bodies (both private and public), then countries are less likely to be involved in wars. No other predictor is as good.

On the need to remedy bad actions by our representative governments:

Black people are much poorer today than they would have been had the US and state and local governments not enacted and enforced laws and policies that segregated America--denying Black veterans the same benefits as White veterans, forcing unions to segregate even when they wanted to make integrated unions, allowing laws that forbade sale of homes in certain areas to Blacks, and the list goes on. Even with the laws gone, people are suffering today, because the laws did what they were written to do.

If you look closely at these references, you may find that I didn't refer you to a single political Progressive thought leader. No one from a left wing think tank. It just so happens that Progressive voices in America today are preaching goals more in line with this evidence than what we see from the political right. It also turns out that the mid-20th century Libertarian idealism that conservative think tanks seem to favor in their scholarship is a bit too far from last decades of advances in social, political, and academic thought to generate government or personal policies adapted to the current needs of most American--or most humans.
These are a few of the voices that inform my Progressivism. Not partisan or ideological pundits. Not one or two news outlets. Not a political party news letter (although I get news from Our Revolution, the Working Families Party, and Rural Progressives, among other advocacy groups).

Some Important Conservative Thought

As judged by the conservative guest editor for the New York Times Opinion page, August 2018.

Breaking Norms is Good

The first editorial referenced said an interesting thing. Much of what Trump is doing is breaking norms, not breaking the Constitution or Democracy. History has shown that breaking norms is often what is needed to reinvigorate democracy. That part was an interesting read. He brought up some great examples from US history of presidents who broke a lot of norms.
Of course, he failed to mention the likely consequences of conflicts of interest relating to the president not divesting his finances while in office (and the legal gray area of the emoluments clause in the Constitution), or various other ethical (not just procedural, cultural, or partisan) norms the president has broken. But his big picture was interesting. Breaking norms is not inherently bad. It's a bit curious, that argument coming from an ideological conservative, since that is what many Progressives like typically want, but not really problematic. 
The author's application of the idea to the current Republican administration, implying that this specific set of broken norms is good for our nation, is more difficult. The author avoided this difficulty by cherry-picking the norm breaking that gets a lot of publicity, but isn't really what I see as the administration's worst offenses. Further, I don't doubt that good consequences may come from a period of bad policies and broken ethical norms, but when they do it is because good people are motivated to fix things with better policies and stronger ethical norms. Bad policies and bad ethics may inspire good, but choosing crooks and liars for your advisers, separating parents and children, and wielding presidential power to (attempt to) punish political critics meet no definition of good--for our nation or for individuals. And I limit myself only to three points that are easily publicly documented.

Bernie Sanders is Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Castro, and his supporters are Nazis

The second article had a great, click bait title: "Socialism as a Hate Crime." I will summarize:
  1. Conservatives are having their voices silenced with the accusations that they are speaking hate.
  2. Socialism has sounded good and friendly everyplace it has been preached throughout history.
  3. Everyplace Socialism has come into power, millions of people have been killed and oppressed:
    • long list detailing the attrocities of:
      • Stalin
      • Mao
      • Hitler
      • Castro
  4. There is no difference between the Progressive movement in America, today, and these atrocious regimes.
  5. If Bernie Sanders, or others sharing his ideas, comes to power, we will be on the Road to Serfdom (the title of a book by Hayek).
  6. Sanders and others who believe like him should be silenced for speaking hate (or it's at least not fair that they are silencing us conservatives in a few places that we care about. They are so intolerant).
 Now for my comments
  1. I'd love to pick apart that claim that Conservatives are being prejudicially silenced and see what substance it doesn't have. It's true that some loud, conservative voices have been silenced (in specific venues), and some tweets and social media posts propounding views some identify as conservative have been censored. That those voices are not proponents of hate, and that their views are conservative are completely different claims. That students should not have the right to protest speeches on their university campuses is a completely different claim. That students are unwise to protest speeches by conservatives on college campuses is a completely different claim. But examining the happenings at that level of detail might derail the superficial narrative, so I won't do it here. Plus, it wouldn't convince anyone.
  2. That's an interesting historical fact, that socialism sounded cozy before they slaughtered millions. Debatable, but I can see what he's getting at. You have to cherry pick, a bit, which historical socialists you read about, and which things Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Castro said before coming to power, but they certainly said many nice things that sounded good to a lot of people.
  3. No one (almost) will disagree that Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Castro, and their supporters did horrible things. The bulk of the article was a summary of their worst offenses against humanity. It is quite an effective litany to prime a person's emotions. If it were logically relevant, this would be an important reminder to not repeat the horrors of history, and to listen to Libertarian voices. It is a great list for anyone wanting to respond to the claim that religion is responsible for the worst atrocities in human history. Only Nazism might claim some tie to religion as its motivating force, and that is dubious.
  4. This is the main argument, asserted in one early paragraph and insinuated throughout--American style Progressivism is a certain precursor to Stalinist Communism unless it is repudiated by Democracy-loving Conservatives.
  5. This destruction of democracy was predicted by the economic prophet, G.F. Hayek, in his book entitled The Road to Serfdom. I have come to discover that this is a Bible
    of many Libertarian Conservatives. Unfortunately for their prophet's relevance, today, economics has built upon his work, most recently with advances in behavioral economics. The 1940s communist scare doesn't have to be our great political motivator, today. It's ok for us to recognize that there is a spectrum between centrally planned and controlled communism and unregulated free markets. In fact, most of democratic Europe, Canada, and Australia live in that spectrum far closer to communism than we do, and none of them have become become authoritarian dictatorships in the last 60 years, as best I can tell. It's ok for us to recognize that good government plays a role in good society, and that not everyone who collects taxes is an evil crook. It's ok for us to realize that societies are stronger when there is greater, real equality.
  6. Social media and college campuses should be censoring Bernie Sanders and others who believe as he does that Medicare for all, Social Security, and publicly funded schooling through college are good things, because these things will result in killing millions of people, even though they sound cozy right now. Who does this make sense to? I actually know many people that this makes sense to. I even can explain why it makes sense to them, although I no longer try to justify their views as reasonable. Most of them wouldn't be as logically bold as this author to make the argument that Sanders and Hitler are the same, but they will insist that no good can come of publicly run anything--or at least not as much as if it were all private.
This second guy is literally calling Bernie Sanders a pre-power Hitler, and calling American Progressives Nazis and Communists. Go read it. He says there is no difference in what they all preach. That would explain why Sanders and his supporters are so worried about the ethnic, racial, and cultural homogeneity of their voting bloc. Why they are seeking to keep out Latino asylees and cutting by more than 2/3 the number of refugees we accept each year. This is why Progressives are defending the separation of young children from their parents (they are criminals, after all), and are in favor of the use of force by police and citizens when they feel threatened by other U.S. Citizens who they think might be criminals. This is why Progressives want to keep putting disproportionate numbers of Blacks in jail, because the idea of majorly reforming our criminal justice system is the same thing as failing to support our police officers and other public servants. This is why Progressives feel annoyed or disrespected or threatened or angry or disgusted when they are forced to watch NFL players kneel during the National Anthem to protest police shootings of Black men, because saying that we White Americans are racist is real racism (that's a near quote, but not from an educated Conservative). Standing respectfully for symbols of America, seeking unlimited spending for our active military, arming every good citizen (as defined by the NRA) who wants a gun, deregulating markets, backing police in killing, arresting, and imprisoning Black men, and protecting unborn babies against the moral turpitude of their mothers, are the most important ways to be a Patriot.
Oops, I think I mixed up my parties. 

I tried. 

I read the thoughtful, respectful (mostly), conservative columnist (who called Millennials know-nothings). I read the professors and think tank fellows that he cited as intelligent and influential. I don't doubt they are both, and have contributed many good things in their spheres of influence. You might even say that these authors never said they support bad things like separating toddlers from their parents. 
But how do you make that distinction in our current climate? If you say Trump's norm breaking is good for the country, you are aiding this Republican administration's policies. You are saying, "I support actions keeping foreigners out." You are saying, "If you are poor or middle class, you shouldn't expect benefits from the government--even Medicare and Social Security, and you should look to private markets for education, too. But rich people and corporations, you should expect special treatment because you make our nation great." If you equate American Progressives with Hitler and Stalin, you are calling them racist, nationalist, and imperialist--Nazis and Communists were all those things. You are saying Progressives are warming up to ethnically or culturally cleanse America. Those are the logical implications of these arguments. The implications aren't even buried. It's the point the second author is trying to make clear.
If these shallowly reasoned apologetics are what passes for strong scholarship and thought in conservative circles, they really have no justification for asking why people don't want to hear what they have to say. It's not like I turned to Brietbart or Fox News to get my explanations of conservative thought. I went to the New York Times and conservative professors and think tanks. I didn't look for their worst work. I read what was recommended by an educated conservative. I would love serious discussions about current politics with my conservative friends and acquaintances, but that's hard when they rely on authors like these and mid-20th century Libertarianism to justify their beliefs. Let's talk current events with current understanding, based on careful and broad views of history and data from real policies, not idealized ideological models.
I have heard conservatives from common people to intellectuals to politicians support the Republican government, despite decrying the actions of its current leader. From each one I have heard some form of, "As long as he does X, we can/should ignore/forgive his antics. We are getting our way, and we are happy about it. We are stopping Socialists/Democrats/Progressives/atheists/immigrants/Muslims/snowflakes/RINOs/the elite/intellectuals from destroying our country/killing unborn children/committing acts of terror/taking away our guns. We are supporting business/job creators/economic growth/lower taxes/fiscal responsibility/our military. We are getting pork for our constituents' problems because we can get this guy to play favorites by acting loyal." I actually heard a Georgia Congressman say that, although he used more politically palatable language.

I love ideals. I love futures that could be. But let's bound our ideals by the laws of nature, and build them on real humanity.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why I don't hate "government"

Government: Restricter or Promoter of Liberty?

Most often I hear arguments against government focusing on how government hobbles individual choices, like choices about how to do business or what to do with one's justly earned property. This is a focus on negative liberties--things we are forbidden to do by laws and institutions. Too seldom do I hear about the positive liberties enabled by good government. I invite you to consider this, with me. Should our ideal goal be less government, or should it be better government? Should we be fighting hardest to prevent the taking of liberty, or should we be fighting to lift as many people up as we can? Which focus will do the most to make a better world, to build Zion?

Here are a couple of links explaining what negative and positive liberty are:
This first one is the easier read, and shorter, even if I don't agree with it all that much.
This second one is much harder, and possibly confusing. What it refers to as "political liberalism" includes many beliefs held both on the right and the left in American politics, and particularly held by Right-Libertarians. It is a focus on individual freedom and individual rights. Now on to some of my thoughts on the value of negative and positive liberties.


I agree that property is real. People really do have and use things according to their desires. Ownership, however, is a social construct sustained by law and only maintained by force, trust, or isolation. Without government, ownership beyond family or tribal bonds of trust is impossible, unless you use force to prevent theft by other groups, or you live where no one can take it because you never come in contact with strangers. It is our social constructs embodied in government that set and enforce the rules of ownership, giving individuals the power to manage their property according to their own wills. Government enables any right to property in a large society of interconnected strangers. Before the democratic rule of law, most people did not have rights to property, and often didn't even have rights to their own lives. In fact, this state continued for many even after our constitution was accepted. If force is not to determine property rights, just law must be the judge. The goal should be good and just regulation and enforcement of property rights, not the absence of government and its accompanying laws. No one should be a slave, and history shows us that government is needed to ensure rights of owning even ourselves against the greed of powerful men.

Free Markets Are Innovative? Not even close without government.

I read a very enjoyable book called The Rational Optimist. It is an engaging exploration of data supported reasons to be optimistic about the future of humanity. The author is a great proponent of free markets, entrepreneurs, and inventors, and not a big fan of government mandates. But the author seemed to have a disconnect. He frequently pointed out how government benefits us, allowing for trust beyond the family or tribe, for example, then downplayed the role of government in favor of his narrative of the value of entrepreneurs, private enterprise, and free markets. A striking example of his bias was claiming that most important scientific and technological advances came from private individuals and companies, not government supported endeavors or research.

One of the examples he gave of an independent, plucky entrepreneur who made a great advance was the man who made the sea clock. The author didn't do his research very well. Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude is a history of the making of the sea clock. It turns out the plucky entrepreneur who made the sea clock spent most of the time developing his clock while supported almost exclusively by government grants.

The rational optimist must have also ignored that Louis Pasteur did most of his important work establishing the germ theory of disease, developing methods for creating vaccines, figuring out how to pasteurize drinks so they could be produced en masse without making people sick, and saving the French silk industry, while employed by universities and on government funded projects.

He also overlooked that most of the background research behind essentially all economically important technological advances in the US (and I would guess the world) since World War II (and arguably back farther) was and is publicly funded--and that doesn't count all the inventors and entrepreneurs who have benefited from publicly funded education.

He overlooked that the CDC has done much more for the health of humanity and its work force per dollar spent than the private healthcare industry in the US.

This focus on entrepreneurs as representative of the success of free markets (downplaying the role of business in creating government regulations that interfere with free markets) and privately funded inventors as the backbone of technological advance (downplaying all of the publicly funded and enabled work that supported the advances) is a shortcoming of most Libertarian thought I have read.

I've heard responses like, "But private enterprise could do it better." The problem is, private enterprise didn't do these things. Government funded research has provided the majority of new drugs in recent years. Pharmaceutical companies have done important work with clinical trials and development for widespread use, but they identified only a minority of the molecules. We don't get to rewrite history simply to support our ideological positions. Basic scientific research, most of which is and has been government funded, makes the world a better place to live.

Global Interdependence

Moving from science and technology back to ownership. What inherent right does anyone have to own anything? The typical argument is that we deserve what we work for and earn, and have a right to that. But how does anyone earn anything? Most fundamentally aren't our very lives gifts from parents, the earth, or God? And if you worked hard for what you have, how did you first acquire the skills and materials used to do your work? Were you given no help from family? From publicly funded teachers? From public infrastructure? From employers that paid you a fair, or even generous, wage? Do you not benefit from all of the government funded research alluded to before? And the list of interconnections can go on and on. What is your just responsibility to these people?

If you are willing to look into yet one more book, I would point you to Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?. This is a short, approachable introduction to the philosophy of justice and how it has evolved in U.S. history. When it reaches the 20th century, it works its way through Libertarian thought, and one can see how Libertarian ethics have entered into both left-leaning arguments about individual rights to our bodies and personal identity and into right-leaning arguments about individual economic rights. Libertarian ethics are, frankly, very appealing and come to many powerful conclusions. Then he continues on to a picture that incorporates respect for individuals with a broader, moral respect for community and the individual duty to be engaged in creating just communities, not just seeking personal justice. His conclusions are logical, but they also feel true to my internal moral code. But I didn't know where he was headed until the end. I thought he made Libertarian ethics sound quite good, yet feared he would stop there, because something didn't quite feel settled.

Better, Adaptive Government

I would love to see bureaucratic waste and bad regulations go the way of the dodo. I would hate to lose the rights enabled by government--the ability to trust strangers, the right to justice for all, the protection of our shared air and water, and many other things that keep us healthy and happy, however imperfectly--simply to be freed from government rules. I want more just government. That may mean less government--it would take a lot less government to run a universal basic income program than to run our array of current social services--or it may mean more--we will need new agreements and agencies to work out how humans will manage things as we colonize Mars, or the oceans. So no, I don't want less government interference in my life. I want better government interference in my life. 

I want government that adapts to a changing world rather than propping up failing ways of doing things. I want government that will stop supporting destructive ways of doing things and start supporting sustainable ways of doing things so that my great-great grandchildren can live free of the fear that there will be an energy collapse. I would love more distributed governmental power. Just as moving from kings to legislatures increased justice, I expect further dispersal of power would promote even greater justice, but only if there are laws that assure we are lifting up the weak--not leaving them to fend for themselves in a negative liberty world that denies them no rights but provides them no resources with which to lift one another. I hope you will think about what you really want from government, what will truly lift people up, and not only what you fear will push you down. I hope you will get involved to make it better.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

SURT notes 1.2.4 p.89

(The idea that time isn't real is an obstacle to understanding God. We try to associate the Aristotelean unmoved mover with the Newtonian observer outside space and time, and we end up with an absurd, omni-God.)

Time is meaningless in a block universe, and is meaningless to an observer outside of time.

Devaluing time is tied to privileging mathematics as reality. The ideas that math is reality and that understanding universal laws will allow us to know all that is, was, and will be is not science. It is philosophy or metaphysical assumptions, and probably not sound, at that.
We do better to put the Newtonian paradigm in its place, to drop the block-universe picture of the universe, to recognize the reality of time all the way down, to dispense with the notion of a framework of natural laws outside time, to admit that the laws of nature may change, and to deflate the claims of mathematics to represent a uniquely privileged channel of insight into reality.
(Dropping the omni-God requires a lot less intellectual stretching and rationalization than maintaining it. We do have to let go of the false comfort of a God in control of everything. A God living in nature with us, however, matches our lived experience better. Saying we are of a substance with God is not the same as saying we know, or can comprehend, everything about God.)

The Big Bang broke the laws as they currently are. Our evidence is that many natural laws aren't constant in time.

We have accepted conceptual maneuvers that disguise contradictions in the cosmological narrative.:
  1. Newtonian prediction from initial conditions and laws has been generalized too far, from systems where it applies to the whole universe.
  2. Sometimes we assume current conditions in the universe apply throughout time (cosmological presentism). (This can be subtle, I think)
  3. We have to have immutable natural laws to be able to do science.
  4. Reductionism in cosmology--we can understand all of time and space by studying small parts and extrapolating.
"All of them are tainted . . . by circularity."

. . . consider what the cosmological discoveries of the last hundred years might . . . mean once we relinquish the impulse to reconcile them with the tenets of the time-denying and mathematics-worshipping tradition that we dispute.
The hypotheses of the book:
. . . time is real . . . everything changes . . .mathematics is useful . . . because it abstracts . . . , not because it affords us privileged insight into timeless truth.
According to the predominant view of theories attempting to unify gravity with the other three forces,
The structural explanation is much more likely to help explain the history of the universe than the history of the universe is to explain the present structure.
Accepting the opposite would turn physics into a more narrative science, like history and evolution and social sciences, than the purely theoretical science we have often imagined it to be.
There is better reason to believe today in a succession of causally connected universes than there is to believe in a plurality of causally unconnected universes.
Accepting the multiverse (causally unconnected) prevents the need to deal with the reality of time.

String theory deepens the problems of the unreality of time and the ascendancy of mathematics rather than resolving them.

SURT notes 1.2.3 p.75

What is Natural Philosophy?
Here are some of its enduring characteristics . . .
Its first hallmark is to take nature as its topic: not science but the world itself. . . . Science and natural philosophy have the same subject matter, but not the same powers and methods.
A second characteristic . . . is to question the present agenda or the established methods in particular sciences.
Natural philosophy tries to distinguish what scientists have discovered about nature from their interpretation of these discoveries. [interpretations are more often biased] . . . The cost for relying on [preconceptions] is an unacknowledged blindness: the progress of science requires that they be occasionally identified, resisted, overturned, and replaced.
Natural philosophy can be useful in the early stages of change, but later you need new data.
We deal with problems that are both basic and general. We do so, however, without depending on metaphysical ideas outside or above science.
When we reenvision science (or religion) there are problems with introducing ideas beyond the realm of the testable. No untrammeled speculation (nothing supernatural). The goal is to discuss foundational matters without relying on foundational doctrines (or dogma in the religious context). Natural philosophy isn't science, but it can change science. (It isn't revelation, but it can shape revelation.) Expectations shape the path.

Natural philosophy is different from the detailed daily science of a field. Daily science can gradually force change of fundamental assumptions and frameworks.

Philosophical or theological discourse can point to new possibilities, even though they can't establish validity.
Such a change may be motivated by the hope that it will throuw surprising and revealing light on well-established facts and suggest a shift of direction: a new way of looking at the familiar, offering a path into the unfamiliar.
That experiment changes theory implies that speculating on theory is worthwhile so long as it could effect experiment. (Theological speculation is useful when it influences how we practice religion.)

Meta-discourse is more often interdisciplinary and able to question field specific orthodoxies. (Science and religion can help each other ask better questions, even when they can't give each other answers.)

Reform is the typical mode of change. Revolution is the limiting case of extreme change. (I can contribute to revolution through persistent reform.)

Institutions and ideologies that foster criticism and revision allow more constant social change:
An institutional and ideological ordering of social life can have, in superior degree, the attribute of laying itself open to criticism and revision.
Some conditions for freedom and for adaptable societies:
Practical progress requires freedom to experiment and to recombine not just things but also people, practices, and ideas. Moral emancipation demands that we be able to relate to another as the context and role-transcending individuals that we now all hope to be, rather than as placeholders in some grinding scheme of hierarchical order and pre-established division in society. Neither of these two sets of requirements is likely to be satisfied unless we succeed in building societies and cultures that facilitate their own reconstruction, weakening the power of the past to define the future and diminishing the extent to which crisis must serve as midwife to change.
(Are you creating the need for crisis?)

Having an ideology or institution that can be fixed is more important than having one that is right. "Corrigibility supersedes finality." We can be fully committed to an organization that values correction even if it is sometimes wrong. (When an organization ceases to allow for substantial change, how should we relate to it?)
We can engage in such an order, even single-mindedly and whole-heartedly, without surrendering to it. In the midst of our ordinary business, we can keep the last word to ourselves rather than giving it to the regime. In this way, the social world that we inhabit becomes less of a place of exile and torment; it no longer separates us from ourselves by exacting surrender as the price of engagement and isolation as the price of transcendence.
(If Mormonism is correctable, I can belong and be independent. The false dichotomy of blind faith vs. rebellion is broken.)
An institutional and ideological framework of social life that is endowed with this power to facilitate its own remaking enjoys an evolutionary advantage over the rivals.
(God is not dead, but fundamentalism will always die. Dogma will eventually change to something more substantial, or it will also die.) Our available choices evolve as our institutions and ideologies evolve.

Natural philosophy should revisit fundamentals, connect fields, discuss big picture ideas, not just details.

Popular science is where natural philosophy is currently done.
 The popularizing books have become a secret form of the vanished genre, a crypto natural philosophy.
In this respect, the arbiter of science is practical success: success at guiding intervention and at correcting perception.
(The arbiter of Mormonism should be the same. "By their fruits . . .")
Its assumptions about the workings of nature can be both parsimonious and accommodating because they are likely to be compatible with a range of different conceptions of how part of nature is organized.
(With orthopraxy as judge, orthodoxy can be accommodating.)

There is always more than one consistent view of reality.

Science can't avoid assumptions, so assumptions need to be explicit and evaluated explicitly. The bigger your claims, the more significant your assumptions are likely to be. Most scientists will not recognize their assumptions. (Most receivers of revelation will not recognize the assumptions that color their interpretation of the revelation.)
. . . a major scientific system represents . . . a frozen natural philosophy, just as an established institutional and ideological regime amounts to a frozen politics. . . . it becomes . . . entrenched against challenge.
(Correlation is at the same time a useful aid for diffusing knowledge and a frozen theology, entrenched against change.)

We need antidotes to our biases: "Natural philosophy . . . can provide an antidote to metaphysical bias, when such bias is disguised as empirical truth."

Natural philosophy can confront disparate fields and methodologies. Major changes in thought will also change practice. (Applying scientific methods to religion and vice versa can check our biases. Religious and scientific methods will not replace each other, they will remove unreal roadblocks that resulted from institutionalization.)
The point will rarely be to replace the procedures of one science with those of another; it will more often be to remove the impediments that a methodological prejudice imposes on a substantive reorientation.
Analogy can start you on new ways of thinking.

We desire speculative ideas with real consequences, not just detached analysis of science. (Mormon Transhumanism is not simply speculative theology. We practice theology to help us act, and right theology is vindicated by its fruits.)
Its proposals grow in interest if . . . they express physical intuitions and anticipate pathways of empirical inquiry.
But speculations, even vindicated, are foreshadowing, not the final word.
[Speculation] can help draw around the canon of established science a larger penumbra of untapped intellectual opportunity.
Math is a tool, not the judge of right and wrong.
If mathematics were everything that those who believe in its premonitory powers make it out to be, natural philosophy would be both less useful and less dangerous than it is.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

SURT notes I.2.2 p.67

Once we free ourselves from the superstitions that prompt us to see the study of society and history as weak biology and biology as weak physics, we are free to recognize these analogies and to learn from them.
Prejudice against other disciplines doesn't make us better scientists. History and social science have a richer tool set than physical sciences.
In this pursuit, the mind can stock itself with intellectual resources, richer than those that the traditions of physical science make available, with which to confront the tasks of natural philosophy. They are resources with which to reimagine the relation of laws, or other regularities, to states of affairs, of history to structure, and of the repetitions to the new.
Math is useless:
It is futile to look, as natural scientists are accustomed to do, to mathematics for inspiration in the solution of these problems. What we find in mathematics is a peerless body of conceptions of the most general relations among features of the world, robbed, however, of all phenomenal particularity and temporal depth: a lifeless and faceless terracotta army.
Math will be useful after we know what it needs to describe. Math doesn't tell you what reality is.

Laws of economic systems are falsely universal:
What the economists took to be the universal laws of economic life were, by the terms of this criticism, only the laws of one particular "mode of production": capitalism. The were, in the conventional language of today's philosophy of science, effective rather than fundamental laws. The false universality claimed on their behalf rendered them misleading even for the historically specific domain to which they properly applied.
Stable institutions are interruptions of the struggle over terms of social life.
The harder they are to challenge and to change, the more they assume the false appearance of natural phenomena.
If that is how it has "always been", it takes on the appearance of eternal law. If we take a different view of institutions, we will be able to make small changes in them more continuously and easily without crisis.
The idea that structures of society represent artifacts of our own creation . . . failed to develop. . . . It was stopped from such an evolution by its juxtaposition . . . with ideas that limited its reach and compromised its force. These compromises were the illusions of false necessity. Three such illusions have exercised paramount influence.
The first illusion has been the idea of a closed list of alternative institutional and ideological systems. . . .
The second illusion has been the idea that each such type is an indivisible system, all the parts of which stand or fall together. . . .
The third illusion has been the idea that higher-order laws of historical change drive forward the succession of indivisible institutional systems in history. . . .
Institutions favor these illusions, I think. They preclude the need for substantive change and at the same time set the current institution apart as inevitable and better than everything that is past.
In fact, the fundamental laws of history do not exist. History has no script. There is nevertheless a path-dependent trajectory of constraints and causal connections that are no less real because we are unable to infer them from laws of historical change. We can build the next steps in historical experience only with the materials--physical, institutional, and conceptual--made available by what came before. However, the force and character of this legacy of constraint is itself up for grabs in history. By creating institutional and ideological stsructures that facilitate their own revision and diminish the dependence of change on crisis, we can lighten the burden of the past.
(Joseph Smith put lots of things in place to allow for continual change. Why do we saddle ourselves to ideologies that resist that change?)
In the subsequent history of social theory, these three necessitarian illusions have ceased, increasingly, to be believable. Yet students of society continue to use a vocabulary that relies on them and to display habits of mind formed through their use.
The illusions of the closed list of alternative institutional systems and of their indivisibility have sometimes survived, in a climate of half-belief.
Such effective [not eternal] laws, however, emerge and evolve together with the formations themselves. No fundamental laws stand behind them guiding their co-evolution. It is a view reminiscent of ways of thinking long established, although also unexplained, in the life sciences, but, to this day, foreign to physics.
(We've seen firsthand the evolution of religious law adapted to the day, but still want to identify anything we don't want to change as eternal and timeless. Maybe none of it is timeless.)

Declaring private property and free contract as the winners of evolution gives a veneer of inevitability inconsistent with real history of social structures.

The past matters, but it doesn't rule:
We must acknowledge the reality of constraint and the power of sequence that help explain the prevailing arrangements and assumptions. We must acknowledge it, however, without conferring on such influences a mendacious semblance of necessity and authority.
(As Gods we must recognize that the adjacent possible is constrained by the past, but not set up artificial constraints for it.)
We must reestablish the indispensable link . . . between insight into the actual and exploration of the adjacent possible. On this basis, we must exercise the prerogative of the programmatic imagination: the vision of alternatives, connected by intermediate steps to the here and now, especially alternative institutional forms of democracy, markets, and free civil societies.
We can change society and history consciously, but nature can't consciously change itself--unless we learn to do it:
The institutional and ideological regimes melt down periodically in those incandescent moments, of practical and visionary strife, and become, at such times, more available to reshaping. So, too, nature passes through times in which its arrangements break down and its regularities undergo accelerated change. A difference is that we can hope to change forever the character of the structures and their relation to our structure-defying freedom. Nature, so far as we know, enjoys no such escape.
(I have the impression that many conservatives recognize the need for businesses to adapt and be agile to succeed over time, but don't want their governments or religions to do the same. Those should not be contextually true, but absolutely correct for all people and for all time. Is this insistence the reason that significant change requires revolution? How much are radicals who say they won't accept measured change really responsible for problems they create through radical action? How much of their revolutionary excess would be blunted by institutions with mechanisms for continual change? I think a lot. I think to succeed as Gods we will have to learn to live in continual change.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Problem of Pain

The following post was published on The Transfigurist on 4/26/2016

The problem of pain is not in its logic. It only defeats false Gods, or Gods unconstrained by the realities of the nature we live daily.

The problem of pain is in the gut wrenching sadness of watching a parent lose a child and thinking of your own precious children. Of watching a man or woman lose the love of their life. Of watching families uprooted, homeless and cast upon the whims of unwilling strangers, thinking of the time you were jobless, homeless, and on the road with two kids, whatever stuff you could fit in a sedan, and only safe because of the luck of belonging to a family able to help. Of visiting your neighbor and smiling and talking like good neighbors do, but noticing empty cupboards in their tiny, broken, rented home, knowing your kids--who may be limited in where they go to college by what scholarships they can get--will be going to college (or its future counterpart), but who knows where these childhood friends will go from this tiny town with one in six adults unemployed. Of walking by the friendly old man who is always out giving candy to kids on Halloween, with a smile and happy words, and seeing his perpetual rummage sale--and realizing how poor many of your neighbors must be for his to be even a marginal business--selling stuff you wouldn't even donate to a second hand store or give to a friend.

That is the problem of pain. When I don't shut it down or blame it on somebody so I can pretend it's fair, or at least deserved, I see it for what it is. It is evil. It hurts. It hurts even when it doesn't hurt us. We hurt and we rage at injustice. At an unjust universe. At an unjust God. Yeah, even the Gods that might be real. They aren't stopping the pain. They aren't fixing the problems. Even if they might fix them later--balancing out all that wrong on some imagined scale of eternal justice--that doesn't do squat for here and now. What's unrighteous about that anger? Anger at big, powerful people, comfortable in their positions, with enough resources to fix things if they cared enough? You want to know how I'll react if you tell me that anger's unrighteous? Probably you don't, but I probably wouldn't react much. Everybody says dumb things. It's a pain, but usually not much. I've survived worse.

But when my heart hurts, when I see happy kids with deprived futures, when I see kind, uncomplaining people with no hope or purpose but to get by until they die, when I feel irreparable loss--big or small--sometimes I either cry or scream, or both. Maybe not on the outside, but maybe so. And it doesn't matter that our Heavenly Parents have an answer. Especially not since that answer seems to be that the universe is unjust and uncaring--even the one they live in. It's just pain. There is no fix. There is no right answer.

One thing that makes it better for me? We cry together. We scream and rage against that pain together, and we say NO! NO PAIN HERE! NOT IF I HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT! And sometimes we do have a say, so we do something. But sometimes we don't, so we still scream. We still cry. And we love each other, because that's all we can do. We create that out of the uncaring universe. Maybe we have to live forever with the problem of pain. Whatever explanation we give, it's still pain. But every loving being we make in this universe--as parents here, or as Parents hereafter--makes the universe care that much more.

Image Credit: Wellcome Trust

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How I wish my students would read science: a case study on Gender Ideology

I have wondered about the issue of Gender Dysphoria, and when several of my friends and acquaintances posted links to a position statement by the American College of Pediatricians, I was interested. Even as a public LGBTQ ally, I continue to be sceptical of positions that fail to recognize the predominant biological sex binary. I was encouraged as I began reading the ACP position that it distinguished between the clinical definitions of sex and gender, since we often don't understand this distinction because of less specific definitions of the words in common speech. Here I'm going to model stream of consciousness how I read a scientific argument like that made by the ACP, and the kind of thinking I try to model for my Biochemistry students as we work through scientific arguments. We usually don't pick such ideologically controversial topics, but there is still plenty of ambiguity in Biochemistry.

Initial Impressions

The American College of Pediatricians webpage looked like a valid organization of health care professionals. (I believe it is, even with what I later discovered about the group).

The first point highlighted the predominant sexual binary and its import for continuation of the species. Both facts that concord with my prejudices and understanding. While we don't need every individual to reproduce for survival, we need most individuals to reproduce. But the ACP paper failed to even acknowledge that sex is determined by many more genetic factors than those found on the X and Y chromosome, and they identified all variation from the binary as a disorder. This very black and white oversimplification made me uncomfortable.

At point 2 they recognize the sociological and psychological contributions to gender. Gender is significantly defined by culture and psychology (some have argued completely, but I suspect this doesn't reflect a typically more ambiguous reality). That gender is significantly culturally defined also agreed with my understanding and biases. But once again their statement is black and white, not recognizing any genetic or epigenetic component to gender identity. This increased my discomfort.

The first sentences on point 3 made me uncomfortable--implying a very strong separation between mind and body, psychological and physical problems, that I'm not sure is justified scientifically. In the remainder of the point they identify gender dysphoria as a recognized psychological problem by citing the DSM-V, a diagnostic manual which tends to contain the broad consensus standards by which American psychologists work. This inclined me to believe that gender dysphoria is a problem, and increased their credibility in my emotions.

With point 4 they state something that seems self-evident to me, and a reason I think puberty delaying drugs should be approached with _extreme_ caution. They said that puberty is not a disorder, and delaying it is a disorder. While I still was uncomfortable about the lack of nuance (delaying puberty is sometimes a smaller problem than the alternative), it further inclined me to believe them.

At point 5 I thought, if only 98% of gender dysphoric boys and 88% of gender dysphoric girls resolve their gender dysphoria after puberty, we really shouldn't give them puberty delaying drugs that come with real health risks (points 6-8). But the words "as many as" gave me pause once again. Why are they saying "as many as"? If there is a number, you should look into it. If there isn't a number, you should be dubious of the claims.

Then points 6-8 seemed to be continuing a rhetorical trend that made me uncomfortable. 6 implies that all children who delay puberty will choose to undergo sex changes. It took me a minute to think about it, but while delaying puberty is partly for the purpose of making later sex change less difficult, it is explicitly for the child to have more time to mature and make a very difficult, life-altering decision. Yes, the child is still too young to make a fully mature decision, but at least the child is an older teen rather than a young teen or preteen. And it isn't the puberty delaying drugs with the health risks, as at least one of my friends understood after reading the ACP statement. It's the cross-sex drugs. If this is a scientific statement, they should be justifying these claims with numbers, or make it clear that they are speculating and give justifications for their extrapolations. What is their evidence that children who delay puberty invariably choose sex-change and its associated risks instead of resolving their gender dysphoria and undergoing late, but otherwise normal, puberty? They don't provide links for this, so it looks a lot like a slippery slope argument, and further reason for concern.

Point 7 then compares suicide rates among cross-sex adults over an unspecified period of time with what will happen to children who undergo the same procedure much earlier and after delaying puberty. It is reason for concern, but it is apples and pears (related, but not the same). They do provide a reference to the peer reviewed article, which is good, but they don't even provide a link. And the journal it is published in is in the Public Library of Science. That means it is free online. Why, in such an important statement, would you not take the minute required to provide your readers with a link to the original research? This made me look at the other references more closely. While the references are sound, none of them provide clickable links, despite many of them being freely available online. This is disturbing in an organization that claims professionalism.

But I had only done some of this analysis by the first read through. I had noticed numerous red flags, but all the things that accorded with some of my prejudices, and the proper science-speak on other points, made me inclined to believe the the ACP conclusion in point 8 that using drugs to delay puberty is probably harmful. I wasn't comfortable with calling it abuse--especially since I was aware of a study that found that children who delayed puberty were just as happy in their 20s as their peers who did not, so I had memories that gave pause to claims of abuse. But I though, we probably shouldn't be delaying puberty for most cases of gender dysphoria if it only helps such a small percentage of the already small percentage of children with gender dysphoria.

Looking Further

I still had to relieve my concerns with the red flags. I made myself look further. The comments of another interested party on Facebook helped, but it turns out it isn't hard to discover something about the ACP by a simple Wikipedia search:

This group consists of 60-200 members--except that's an estimate because they don't publish how many members they have, just the credentials of a few. That's compared to the American Association of Pediatrics 64,000 members. So it comprises at most 0.1-0.3% of American pediatricians. So this statement is officially supported by only a very small percentage of pediatricians.

I read the follow up clarifications on points 3 and 5. Instead of 2 and 12% of male and female children that don't resolve gender dysphoria, it may be 30 and 50% that don't resolve after puberty. Most likely it's somewhere in between, maybe 1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females. Where are the recommendations of the ACP for those children? Are those children simply broken and not valuable? The ACP position is clearly that they are broken.

I then went to the "about" page and read it. The ACP makes it clear that they are starting from an ideological position: "We expect societal forces to support the two-parent, father-mother family unit and provide for children role models of ethical character and responsible behavior."

Scientific Merit

At this point, I would hope it is clear to any of my students that the ACP position statement is of dubious scientific quality. Before concluding that my beliefs are scientifically justified, I should be going to other sources. The Wikipedia article suggested a likely one, so I looked it up. Here it is, Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth from the American Psychological Association. Just having skimmed a few parts, it's a much more useful read--broadly informative, more nuanced, and less dogmatic in its claims. Clearly more focused on caring for the child rather than asserting an absolute societal norm.

So while I don't think I disagree with any of the facts presented in the ACP position paper, and I agree with the recognition of gender dysphoria as a problem, I am back to believing that the best way to address the problem is to give parents and health care providers tools and choices. They are working directly with the children, so give them best tools available and the right to do their best to help their children as they see fit. Do you imagine the parents care more about a sexual agenda than about their own children? Maybe a few, but I doubt many. I'm sure they will sometimes make mistakes, and that cultural norms sometimes hurt children, but we've been ideologically hurting 2-30% and 12-50% of these children for generations without any possible help for them. I'm glad that doctors are trying to help this small population, and hopeful that over time they will figure out the best ways to do it based on empirical observation more than on ideology.