Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Benefits of Magical Thinking

You know the old phrase "fake it til you make it"?

I hate that phrase. It's like it was invented by someone trying to come up with a single-phrase antithesis to my outlook on life. My gripe with it goes back a long way.

When I was young, I was sad a lot, and made fairly frequent visits to the school counselor's office. On one of these visits she told me, "Even if you feel sad, maybe if you go out and just smile, and pretend you are happy, before you know it you'll actually be happy!"

10 or 11 year old me thought this was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. I remember being genuinely morally offended by this notion. It seemed like she was telling me not only to lie to everyone else, but to lie to myself.

I don't want to fake it at any point. I want to be who I am. I want to be honest about my abilities and shortcomings and my emotions. I don't want to project confidence when I'm not feeling confident. I don't want to deceive anyone, least of all myself. I don't want false hope, or false solace. I decided that that approach wasn't for me, and I remained sad...ever since, I guess.

Childhood gripes aside, the "fake it til you make it" advice is mostly given in the context of someone starting a new career. The theory seems to be that if you just pretend you know what you're doing for long enough, you will become the thing you're pretending to be. And in the mean time, most people can't reliably see through the facade.

This idea is maddening to me. It reeks of magical thinking and Rick Warren levels of bullshit artistry - things I've historically been opposed to. And how is it possible people don't see right through this? I don't think I've ever successfully faked my way through anything I didn't have a clue about. It always seemed to me that the best policy is always to be honest with yourself and who you are. Only through reflection and a proper assessment of yourself and your abilities can you grow. Those things look really convincing and good and right typed out like that.

But people repeat that phrase, "fake it til you make it", for a reason.

And the reason is that it fucking works.

Despite my convictions against this kind of magical thinking, it appears there are a lot of benefits to cultivating positive delusions. Truth may have its own utility globally, but untruth can locally pay back greater utility in terms of happiness, confidence, and successful outcomes both of individuals and societies.

A number of lines of evidence from psychology support this idea that people can benefit from different sorts of benevolent illusions. Most of these should be taken with a grain of salt, given psychology's recent problems reproducing many iconic studies, but a rundown:

Many experiments have established the efficacy of rituals - symbolic behaviors meant to bring about a certain outcome - in improving confidence, improving performance at tasks, and helping people deal with grief. There's nothing inherent in crossing your fingers that improves your golf swing. But nonetheless, people do better when they know the ritual has been performed. A really popular example of such a ritual are power poses. At least some (possibly irreplicable) evidence suggests that people who adopt power poses - wide, powerful stances reminiscent of superheroes - for several minutes report increased confidence and show some corresponding physiological changes. You can apparently inspire confidence in yourself by pretending to be Superman for a few minutes.

And confidence is a legitimate super power. I could cite studies here showing how confident-looking and confident-sounding people are consistently rated as more capable at tasks despite their actual performance quality, but instead I'll just point to this election cycle for the most salient example of all time.

Studies on depressive realism are my favorite, as self-serving as they seem coming from a person who struggles with depression. Evidence suggests that, compared to non-depressed people, depressed people make more accurate assessments about their relative attractiveness, role, and abilities. See, my messed up brain chemistry just frees me from positive delusions that would make me happier and more successful! Wait, that's a bad deal. Also not worth bragging about, because this personal insight is accompanied by other cognitive distortions that far outweigh any benefit.

The placebo effect, while not a always self-deception, is nonetheless another case that I would call bullshit on if it weren't well-established by mountains of evidence. Patients who are, unbeknownst to them, given a sugar pill in place of actual medicine, nonetheless either report feeling better or show actual improvement in their condition. And then things get weirder, because placebos work even if the patient knows it's a placebo. As if the ritual of going to a doctor and taking medicine is enough to invoke the mystic healing energies of the old ones.

Or how about this: regardless of where you might stand on the free will vs. determinism debate, there's evidence that belief in free will strongly correlates with more positive career attitudes and actual better career performance, even more so than some predictors which are well-established to predict success. It appears merely believing you are in control of your own destiny is often enough to spur yourself to better outcomes. Another dilemma for people drinking Sam Harris's Free Will Kool Aid: even if he's right, it appears to be better for you not to believe him.

Religion poses another problem for the person trying to avoid superstition and delusion but still be happy. For one thing, it's been demonstrated repeatedly in experiments using controlled economics games that religiosity of participants is correlated with greater degrees of cooperation and trust in the games. It seems religion is an important tool for promoting prosocial behavior, especially of the long-term sort that contributes to social stability. This finding is bolstered by historical evidence. In a study examining 19th century communes, tiny independent societies, it was found that religious communes were more likely to survive at every stage of their lives than their secular counterparts. Despite the dubious veracity of any given religious tradition, religion seems to be a necessary tool for strengthening societal bonds. And that's before ever factoring in the fact that religiosity is correlated with happiness, as long as a person is roughly as religious as his society is.

So how exactly am I supposed to reconcile this conviction that reality is best taken as it is, and that I shouldn't pretend to be something I'm not, with the irrefutable fact that some kinds of self-deception or false belief are helpful or even necessary?

How am I to reconcile the fact that magical thinking does a lot of harm with the possibility that some magical thinking might be necessary to leading a fulfilling life? How do I bridge the gulf between unrealistic hopes and realistic assessments of probability, given that the hope alone, if sincere, nudges the probability of those unlikely desires at least slightly upward?

How do I face the possibility that Rick Warren was right about something?

My paradox appears to be: Magic isn't real, and yet we must believe in magic.

At least, it often seems to be in our best interest to do so...

Anyway, I'm not sure I really can bring myself to believe in magic, regardless of what sort of benefits I may gain from adopting such benevolent falsehoods. I am who I am, and I'm not at all confident I can change that. Or that I really want to.

But, anyway, I bought a tarot deck.

So I guess I'll just fake it for now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Was it the gun that killed him, or bad epistemology?

I just typed up a big post about epistemic responsibility. And hey, according to Facebook's On This Day app, I was also thinking about epistemic responsibility exactly a year ago today!

Specifically, in the context of this article.

To summarize, two men got in a fight after being thrown out of a Super Bowl party. After parting, one of the men went to the other at his home, and shot him several times. The man was rushed to the hospital and went into surgery. However, the man was a Jehovah's Witness, and therefore refused a blood transfusion. He died during surgery.

And so the question we must ask is should the man who shot him be charged with assault or murder?

As it happens, the article states that the prosecution might be able to prove that even with a blood transfusion the victim was likely to die. However, we can easily imagine a case where that wasn't so. In such a case, it'd be clear that if the man hadn't been shot, he'd still be alive. But he'd also still be alive if he hadn't declined blood transfusion.

So where does the final responsibility lie, and should that matter when determining if something was assault or murder, given that the decisions the victim makes after being attacked could affect his survival chances? How much responsibility should we assign to the Jehovah's Witness for acquiring a belief that might have led to his death?

When I last discussed this, a friend of mine made a pretty good point:

"I don't think the refusal of the blood transfusion is important. There are many other factors that could possibly contribute to someone dying from being shot. If they were 10 minutes further away from a hospital or ambulance, that could matter."

I do think this is accurate. Clearly there was intent on the attacker's side to kill this man, and any number of factors other than the man's belief might come up that contributed to his death. If the doctor made a mistake in surgery instead, perhaps. Technically the doctor played some role in his death, but ultimate responsibility would still lie with the attacker.

However, I also think people are morally accountable for the beliefs they adopt, and that they are morally responsible for the consequences of those beliefs. I think Jehovah's Witnesses are practicing bad epistemology in adopting those beliefs, and so, in many cases choose to die.

But this case makes me wonder, are there any situations or beliefs the victim could have where we'd place ultimate responsibility on the victim rather than the attacker?

Consider a thought experiment:

A man is shot several times, just like the other guy. But due to the placement of the bullets, it is clear that even after surgery, the man will lose the use of his legs. He then refuses treatment because he doesn't think life is worth living without being able to walk, and so he dies. Is the man who shot him still guilty of murder, or does the fact that the man chose to die afterwards significant?

A more analogous case, which seems to me to be exactly the same in principle:

A Klansman is shot several times, and is rushed to a hospital where he finds that only black doctors are available to operate on him. Believing in their inferiority or impurity, or resenting having his life put in their hands, however illogically, he rejects treatment and dies.

My dad at least doesn't see the second case as the same. But the only difference I can see is that the Jehovah's Witness belief is a relatively benign religious belief (except to the person who holds it), while the Klansman's belief is an abhorrent one. We seem more willing to hold the Klansman responsible for his abhorrent beliefs.

I think this case highlights some interesting issues in the way we assign moral responsibility. And also why epistemology is important: you don't want to accidentally gain the belief that blood transfusions are evil and put yourself in a situation where that belief can kill you.

Grimdark Fantasy and The Chronicles of the Black Company

It's no secret that I love fantasy literature. I've been a voracious reader since I was a quiet, awkward kid. The tradition continues now that I'm a quiet, awkward adult.

Lately I've been on a tour of fantasy, checking out some of the more popular series. I want to understand the genre, identify its broad trends and their sources. I'm particularly interested in the shift between classic fantasists to the so-called "grimdark" trend of today. Some people call this distinction high and low fantasy. But to me, those terms seem to be about how well they follow established tropes, when what really separates these things are the tone and focus.

Classic fantasy has a moral clarity to it - a certainty that the good guys are the good guys and that they must band together to triumph over evil. You have knights in shining armor, the good king who rules justly over his realm, and the unambiguously evil, nonhuman hordes that threaten the kingdom.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is the wellspring from which all high fantasy springs, and the archetypal example of this kind of fantasy. Many fantasy series, including The Wheel of Time, seem to mainly follow in this tradition.

Grimdark is different. It appeals to your inner pessimist. It looks at these neat fantasy worlds and says, "But that's not what things are really like, is it?" Maybe the ostensibly wise and just king is just a figurehead for the whims of the ruling elite. Maybe your knights, though they've sworn vows, can be indistinguishable from the lawless brigands they're supposed to be fighting. 

Maybe the great enemy that threatens the kingdom has a point. 

Grimdark fantasy also doesn't shy away from the gruesome details of the brutal lives of its main characters. Expect to hear about the horrific injuries of their comrades, the mass raping that ensued when soldiers sacked the city, the hardships of hunger and disease on an army. Expect your heroes to be more like antiheroes - perhaps only slightly better than the villains they face. Expect moral ambiguity. A Song of Ice and Fire is a popular example.

None of this is to say that grimdark fantasy is better than classic fantasy. They excel at different things, serve different ends. And neither should we imagine a given work to be either one or the other. Rather, each work exists on a continuum between these things.

Anyway, to better understand this grimdark trend in fantasy, I went to the book that authors such as Steven Erikson credits as the source: The Chronicles of the Black Company, first published in 1984 by Glen Cook. I just finished the first of my omnibus editions of the series, containing the first three books.

Like, just finished. I finished the book, basked in the afterglow of a story well-told for awhile, and just had to come and gush about it a little bit. It really did not disappoint. You should go read it right now. No spoilers for now, just a brief summary. I'll probably write more spoilery stuff in a different post.

The book tells the story of the Black Company, a mercenary troupe with a long and storied history. A great war rages between an aggressively expanding empire, ruled by an evil Wizard queen, and a scrappy, determined rebellion. The Black Company is soon hired and drawn into the war...on the side of the Empire. 

The story is told from the point of view of Croaker, the company's physician and official Annalist - a job he takes very seriously. He considers it his duty to accurately record the company's history, their victories and defeats, whether flattering or unflattering. Because of this, he often puts himself in harm's way if he thinks the outcome will be historically important to the company. Croaker's moral struggles with the Company's involvement in the war, and his pragmatism and sense of humor keep his perspective engaging.

As does the extended cast of Black Company soldiers. There's a real brothers in arms feel - these people have a history together, a shorthand between them such that even their long silences and what they don't say can communicate a lot. 

The writing style was a little hard to adjust to at first. Cook doesn't use a lot of description, sketching characters and setting and action in broad, efficient strokes. Sometimes it reads like some official military mission report. Oddly, that seems to aid in the immersion. My imagination filled in the details admirably. 

The first book was divided into long chapters that were almost self-contained vignettes, chronicling the Company's individual missions and struggles, working up to a climax that was both epic and horrific in scale. I was left immediately craving more. And since I have an omnibus edition, I could just turn the page start the next one.

The second book threw me a little, as Croaker's first-person perspective sections were interspersed with third-person sections revolving around a whole different cast of characters that don't really interact until the middle of the book. The transitions between these sections were pretty jarring, especially since what I loved so much about the first book was Croaker's limited point of view. Everything you saw was colored by his own perception, and there was much left only implied. In addition, you could hold on to the idea that what you were reading was Croaker's personal account of the war. The third-person perspective intruded on the illusion somewhat. All the same, the climax of the second book was worth pushing to, despite the first part being a lot weaker.

The third book employed a similar device, but actually addressed the perspective shifts in an in-universe way that eliminated the substantive parts of my critique. Without spoilers: The reason it seemed like a completely different voice and style was because, in-universe, it was. 

The third book further developed and humanized the major characters all while ramping up the scale of the conflict. I started to like characters I never thought I would, and parts near the end made me tear up and have to take a break. That book functioned as a wonderful end to that particular story arc, and if it had been the last book of the series, I would have been satisfied.

However, there are 7 more books in the series. I'm very interested to see where it goes from here.  

If my goal was to ramble and gush, I suppose I've accomplished it by now. Check out the Black Company if you're interested in this same weird genre trend I'm interested in, or if you want to read a good story about soldiers coping with being on the wrong side of the war. Also there are flying carpets. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Blind Faith is Morally Irresponsible

A long time ago, I wrote a post about the barriers a Christian most overcome to convince an atheist of the truth of Christianity. That post was written as a response to the kind of Christian that finds evidential standards important when talking about the truth of their religion. There are many Christians who believe their beliefs are firmly supported by the available evidence. It is my belief, of course, that they are mistaken.

All the same, the religious people who do value evidence and reason can at least engage with atheists on the subject. They can disagree over the strength of particular evidence, perhaps offer a different spin on it. Regardless of their actual position on a given evidential issue, they'll see it as important. They're at least participating in the evidence and reason game. Their participation in this game implies that if the evidence against their religion doesn't hold up, then one shouldn't believe in their religion.

We're not talking about those kinds of religious people today. If you think evidence is an important factor in your belief in your religion, you're off the hook.

But there's another type of religious person who isn't interested in this kind of game. They believe that evidence and rational argument should not enter into religious discussion - that religious belief can only be justified by faith alone.

I find this position troubling and, ultimately, morally irresponsible.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Exclusion as Social Preservation of Geek Spaces; or, What to Do When an Asshole Ruins Board Game Night

Today I saw an instance of one of the most common posts on the board game and tabletop RPG subreddits I frequent.

See, a lot of people have the experience of inviting someone to their play group, only to have them become a nuisance in some way. Maybe this person gets really angry or upset when they aren't winning. Maybe they routinely cheat or fail to make an effort to understand the rules. Maybe they make racist or sexist jokes, making other people at the table uncomfortable. Or what about a failure to maintain basic hygiene (still? seriously?)? In short, they're ruining the game experience with their behavior, and the poster has no idea what to do about it.

But...it's actually really obvious what you should do in situations like this. I just think the solution is unlikely to even occur to many nerds, or if it does, it will be considered too distasteful.

I'm, of course, talking about exclusion.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Are pro-life advocates inconsistent in their opposition to universal health care?

Inspired by a liberal friend taking the time to debunk liberal misinformation, I've decided to philosophically tackle a liberal meme that bugs me.

One idea that comes up again and again in the liberal community is criticism of the "pro-life" tag for people who are against abortion. They notice that a large portion of pro-lifers are conservative, and there's dramatic overlap with many positions that seem prima facie incompatible with the label: hawkish foreign policy positions, support of the death penalty, and opposition to universal healthcare among them. Implementation of universal health care would undoubtedly save many lives and promote human flourishing. If one really cared about human life, they would certainly not stand in the way of universal health care. Thus, they argue, they are not actually "pro-life" at all. Conservatives are actually only pro-fetus.

However, I think this is a misunderstanding of the conservative position on these issues. It's another symptom of the larger problem of conservatives and liberals talking past each other; using the same language, but not activating the same concepts, and as a result, looking insane to one another when both sides are far from it.

I'll start by saying I'm pro-choice and pro-universal healthcare for the sake of transparency here. But I think effectively arguing against the pro-life position requires an understanding of that position. I don't think this argument works as a response.

There is no necessary inconsistency between thinking that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, and thinking that government-run healthcare systems are not ideal.
A pro-lifer may perhaps think that government-run healthcare systems are unsustainable in the long-term, or that they result in a lower quality of care, or that the free market offers a more efficient solution to health care needs than others. No doubt a liberal might disagree with some or all of those statements, but determining their truth is beyond the scope of the question here. They are contingent on the actual facts of the individual matters. Whether you agree with these statements or not, even if incorrect, each of these positions, if held, would represent a consistent pro-life worldview beyond just opposition to abortion.

In addition to these possible positions, it could be the case that pro-lifers are values pluralists; that is, that they value life and also some number of other things. They may also value human rights, liberty, justice, tradition, authority, or any number of other things, and disagree philosophically with government-run healthcare on that basis.

So they are not single-value positions like Utilitarianism, seeking only to maximize a single measure of utility, but may make judgment calls that balance between several different values. (I actually think we all do this to some degree or another). In such a system, they may argue that both of these issues may indeed have human life at the center of their concern, but that other values as described above outweigh that concern in the case of government-run healthcare, but not in the case of abortion.

In short, it is possible to reconcile these apparently disparate beliefs if you either believe that universal healthcare would not necessarily contribute to life's flourishing, or if other values you also hold outweigh the value of life in the case of healthcare. Thus, the charge of inconsistency is unfounded.

Very few people deny that free healthcare would be a good thing if it was affordable. Conservatives just tend to hold that the expense is not worth it for the amount of good that is possible, or that it destroys choice. As it happens, I disagree with them factually on these matters, but that does not make their position inconsistent.

A simple argument that only requires a good-faith attempt at charitable interpretation to dispel.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What should our attitude be toward the conservation of endangered species?

It seems to me that the idea that we should try to conserve endangered species goes pretty much uncontested.

Or maybe it just seems that way to me because I've grown up loving the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. I've got a fondness and respect for nature. Tonight I found myself engrossed in the Wikipedia article for the blue whale, likely the biggest creature in the history of creatures, and was dismayed at how few of these creatures there really are in the world. It seems just obvious that it'd be sad if these creatures went extinct. That the world would be worse off for losing one of its wonders.

Still, that line of thought got me thinking. What exactly is the argument for this position? What if it's irrational to be sad about such things? I already accept that animals are morally relevant, but even given that, what are our responsibilities, if any, to endangered animals on the level of populations?

I actually have no idea how to approach answering this question. I suppose I can at least see the shape of some arguments that can be made, but I'm not sure how developed or convincing they are. So far I see:

(1) An aesthetic argument which focuses on the beauty of the world's biodiversity, similar to my above reasoning. We'd perhaps assign creatures an aesthetic value that their presence adds to the world. However, the questions this kind of argument raises for me are along the lines of, "Should we be mourning the massive extinction events of the past? Can we not find beauty in the natural process that also results in extinction? Should we only maintain the populations of animals we find aesthetically pleasing, and care not at all for endangered venomous centipedes?

(2) An argument from human interest, i.e., there is utility in maintaining these populations, either to conserve ecosystem dynamics that are beneficial to humans, or because humans can reap some other benefit from their existence. Other benefits might include the things we can learn from them about biology, products we can create as a result of their sustainable existence, perhaps even an assignment of utilitarian value from the awe and wonder we experience upon seeing them.

The questions this kind of argument would raise for me is, "Wouldn't this convince us to conserve only some types of animals that are uniquely beneficial? How do we compare the utility of having these animals still in existence to the cost of maintaining that population? Would it be morally permissible to wipe out animals that are of negative utility to humans, like mosquitoes? Does this framing of the question unjustifiably put human concerns at its center, perhaps at the expense of animal well-being?"

(3) Finally, I can at least conceive of an argument from preserving what is natural that doesn't commit the naturalistic fallacy (perhaps by having a further explanation for why what is natural is good, or at least to be preferred). Someone arguing along these lines may perhaps say that humans are subverting or distorting the natural course of events through their dominion over the natural world, and thus we should work to correct this distortion. My main questions for this line of argument would be, "Why separate the activities of humans from the class of 'the natural course of events'? Do we not just further distort nature by artificial preservation? Isn't extinction natural, too?"

At the very least, it seems like there are quite a few hurdles to go through before one can justify any kind of general thesis in favor of preservation. So far the first one appears to have the most emotional weight to me, but as far as arguments go, "Ooh, they're pretty" seems pretty weak. Perhaps a biologist could enlighten me as to the extent of the second argument's validity, because its strength relies solely on the facts of ecosystem utility.

This is kind of a big topic. I'm hoping someone might be able to point me to a book to be able to explore it a bit more and form a coherent position on this.