Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Terrorism Close to Home

A terrorist attack may bring forth responses that are ugly, stupid, crazy, or all three, in various measures. But the most common response is just what such acts aim at: terror.

Photograph from Bloomberg via the Telegraph (UK)

Around 3:50 yesterday afternoon, I looked at my Facebook page and was puzzled to read a post by someone of my acquaintance saying simply that she was “safe.” I was tempted to ask her what she had been up to that might have put her in danger, but as I looked further down the page, it became apparent that something terrible had happened that affected quite a few people. I went to a news site and was horrified to learn of the deadly violence that had struck in Copley Square an hour previously, about three miles away from where I sat.

I am glad to be able to say that, so far as I have learned, no one of my acquaintance was among those killed or injured by the blasts. But I think all of us who live in the area feel in some obscure way wounded by it.

And then there are those who have quite different reactions. My previous entry on the Westboro Baptist Church has been made somewhat more timely by the group’s announcement on its Twitter feed that it proposes to show up at the funerals of victims of yesterday’s incident. The Phelpses close their message with the assertion that “GOD SENT THE BOMBS IN FURY OVER F*G MARRIAGE!” I once remarked in this blog that natural disasters have a tendency to bring forth self-nominated prophets, ready to invoke divine causes for natural events. But those who consider themselves privy to divine intentions are also ready to render the same public service when sorrow is brought about by human hands, as shown by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in their remarks shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (observed in the third indented paragraph in this blog entry).

But you don’t have to believe in supernatural causes to reject the most obvious natural causes of events: you may simply believe in vast hidden conspiracies, in the manner of apopheniac extraordinaire Alex Jones, who needed little evidence before declaring that the bombings were yet another false-flag operation by the United States government. (Added after posting: Elisabeth Parker at Addicting Info shows how Alex Jones rearranges the dots so that he can connect them.)

The Phelpses and Alex Jones are clearly extreme examples of systematic cognitive (and, at least in the case of the Phelpses, not just cognitive) distortion. But even those of us who do not go to such extremes as a rule may be blown a bit off course by the force of an extraordinary event like this. One looks about with apprehension and suspicion, on guard for signs of the “next” attack, though in fact, the time and place of one such extraordinary event are among the least likely for the occurrence of another. Terrorist acts do occur, but in these parts it stands to reason that one is in less danger of one happening now than one was before yesterday’s incident. Bruce Schneier puts the point well in a piece published on the day of the event in The Atlantic on line:
. . . Terrorism is designed precisely to scare people—far out of proportion to its actual danger. A huge amount of research on fear and the brain teaches us that we exaggerate threats that are rare, spectacular, immediate, random—in this case involving an innocent child—senseless, horrific and graphic. Terrorism pushes all of our fear buttons, really hard, and we overreact.

But our brains are fooling us. Even though this will be in the news for weeks, we should recognize this for what it is: a rare event. That’s the very definition of news: something that is unusual—in this case, something that almost never happens. 
When we learn of a terrorist attack, we naturally follow what in cognitive psychology is called the availability heuristic, which is the natural human tendency to estimate the probability of an event of a certain class according to the “availability,” in our minds, of instances. The stronger the emotional charge on an instance, the more readily it comes to mind, and the more we tend to overestimate the probability of an event of that kind occurring. We do not necessarily fall into the craziness of religious maniacs and conspiracy fantasists, but our cognitive game is certainly below its best. Terrorism works by playing on this cognitive weakness, and making us feel that we are in much more danger than we actually are.

Schneier follows his observation with an instructive historical reminder:
Remember after 9/11 when people predicted we’d see these sorts of attacks every few months? That never happened, and it wasn’t because the TSA confiscated knives and snow globes at airports. Give the FBI credit for rolling up terrorist networks and interdicting terrorist funding, but we also exaggerated the threat. We get our ideas about how easy it is to blow things up from television and the movies. It turns out that terrorism is much harder than most people think. It’s hard to find willing terrorists, it’s hard to put a plot together, it’s hard to get materials, and it’s hard to execute a workable plan. As a collective group, terrorists are dumb, and they make dumb mistakes; criminal masterminds are another myth from movies and comic books.
I’m taking a plane trip soon, and I am not eager to learn what additional inconveniences I shall have to endure. That is a much more realistic worry, I think, than any suspicion of another attack.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sane People with Insane Beliefs

People who believe crazy things are not necessarily crazy; but neither are beliefs sane just because the people who hold them are so.

Photo taken from The Lonely Conservative

In a previous post on this blog (“Lewis Black on Creationism,” April 1, 2011), I included a video of Lewis Black, in a comedy performance, saying this:
There are people who believe that dinosaurs and men lived together, that they roamed the earth at the same time. There are museums that children go to in which they build dioramas to show them this. And what this is, purely and simply, is a clinical psychotic reaction. They are crazy. They are stone-cold fuck nuts.
As much as I relish Black’s comic exaggerations, I don’t accept them as literal truth, and I suspect that he didn’t so intend them either. Present a young-earth creationist with a problem about plumbing or accounting or gardening and I am pretty sure that he or she will respond to it as rationally as anyone else. It is only when a religious question arises, or rather a question to which their religious beliefs dictate an answer, that they talk like crazy people. If religious extremism were to be regarded as a psychosis, it would have to be a localized and artificial one. And eccentric beliefs are manifestations, not causes or constituents, of any condition that would be deemed psychotic in medical practice.

Louis Theroux has made a couple of documentaries in which he visits and converses with members of the Phelps family, the people behind the notorious Westboro Baptist Church: The Most Hated Family in America (2007) and America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis (2011). I find it natural to describe these people as “loonies” or “wackos”; and to say of them, in Black’s words, that they are “stone-cold fuck nuts” is almost irresistible. But it is plain to any sort of fair scrutiny that they are not insane: it is merely their beliefs and their way of thinking that are so.

Yet that does not make them any the less disturbing. On the contrary, their demonstration that sane people can embrace an insane outlook is part of what makes them disturbing.

These people seem to have answers to any objections that one might raise against their views. I don't believe it would be possible to make any progress in argument with them (and I certainly would not care to try). What I might think of as an appeal to reason or evidence they would, I imagine, dismiss as relying on a “humanistic” perspective—as contrasted with “God’s” perspective, which is the one that they claim to take. And if I move to explain away their behavior in terms of ignorance and delusion, they will just as readily explain away my outlook as due to the influence of Satan.

Does this mean that there is no rational basis for choosing between my “humanistic” perspective and their supposedly divine one? No; it just means that neither side can persuade the other.

And yet, the matter will not rest there. For no one who accepts empirical evidence, scientific method, and logical and conceptual coherence—all of which may be gathered, very loosely, under the name of “reason”—rather than scripture, dogma, and personal influence as proper sources of authority in judgment can be content to regard such a practice as a mere private taste or predilection. The appeal to reason is an appeal that all human beings make and must make in determining what is the case. But some do so in the service of convictions that are not only implausible in themselves but that have implications that conflict with common experience, common sense, or common decency. They reason, but they are not reasonable.

The people of the Westboro Baptist Church provide one illustration of this phenomenon. Another, I think, is provided by right-winger Alan Keyes, who in an interview recently offered the following account of the movement for marriage rights for same-sex couples : “The aim is not compassion for homosexuals, respect for homosexuals, and all of this; the aim in the mind of these hard-headed, calculating, leftist, Communist totalitarians is to destroy the family and to establish the notion that once you have seized power there is no limit whatsoever to what you can do.” (Recording and transcript at Right Wing Watch.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Non-Consolations of Biology

A scientific theory that says nothing about the meaning, purpose, or value of human life is not for that reason a denial that there is any meaning, purpose, or value in human life.

Kenneth R. Miller reports being asked, after giving a public lecture on evolution, the following question by a member of the audience: “How can you tell me that I’m just an animal? How can you say that I’m no better than the beasts? That the only things that matter in life are to struggle, survive, and mate? There’s just got to be more to life than that” (Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 135).

It seems to me that such questions rest on the fallacy of moving from the premise “Biology says nothing about the value, meaning, or purpose of human life” to the conclusion “Biology says that there is no value, meaning, or purpose to human life.” That this inference is fallacious I take to be obvious. Biology says nothing about these things because they are outside its bailiwick. They are not scientific matters at all. (In an earlier series of posts—“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion,” “More on Gould on Science and Religion,” and “A Dilemma for NOMA”—I subjected Stephen Jay Gould’s conception of “non-overlapping magisteria” to extensive criticism; but on this particular point, I have had no disagreement with him.)

Of course, people do not commit this fallacy concerning chemistry, say, or physics, which also say nothing about the value, meaning, or purpose of human life. Perhaps that is because those sciences do not concern “life,” while biology does. And perhaps this is what made Miller’s questioner feel that he was being somehow diminished by the theory of evolution. But biology concerns “life” in the sense of what distinguishes organisms from the rest of nature and makes them all akin to one another, not in the specific sense of conscious human existence, with all its attendant aspirations.

This is presumably the very feature of biology that rubbed Miller’s questioner the wrong way: that biology regards human beings as just another species of living thing. But so does physics regard human beings as just so many physical things; chemistry, as so many chemical things. These sciences treat of “actions” and “reactions,” as biology treats of “life,” but they say nothing of what makes human actions and reactions, or human life, so much different from the merely physical, chemical, or biological sort, and so interesting to us. Questions of the value, meaning, or purpose of human life simply go unanswered in science. Why should anyone take that to imply that science, or one science in particular, gives a nihilistic answer to such questions?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Non-Consolation of Belief in an Afterlife

The original version of this entry was written ten months after the death of a close friend.

It is incomprehensible to me that anyone can find consolation in the idea of being reunited with loved ones after death. I am not even considering the question of how anyone can believe such a thing, though that to me is incomprehensible to such a degree that I seriously doubt that most people who profess such a belief actually hold it. I suspect that most of them have confused the wish that something were the case for a belief that it is the case. But that is not my concern here. What I mean is that I cannot understand how people can even find such a belief, or pretense of belief, consoling.

When I mourn my friend, it is in my life that I need him and miss him: it is his absence from my life that afflicts me. Even if I could believe that I would see him again after my death, that belief would do me no good now. Granted the assumption that I, unlike him, live a normal span of life, the prospect of being able to resume our conversation several decades from now, when in all likelihood my grief over the loss of him will have diminished almost to nothing, does nothing for me now, when I suffer the most from the loss of him.

For that matter, I find nothing consoling in the idea of my own life continuing beyond death, whether in ghostly form or resurrected—assuming, of course, contrary to my suspicion, that such suppositions are even coherent. Such an existence would have to be utterly unlike anything that we can imagine. So it would not be a restoration of what we stand to lose by dying. To me, that makes it no better than no existence at all, as far its power to make death seem less terrible is concerned.

Reviving This Blog

Announcing the renewal of posting on this blog.

It is nearly two years since I last posted anything in this blog. During that time, I have from time to time worked on drafts of posts, but have not been able to make of any of them anything that I thought worth posting. I also continued to write a lot of stuff in journals without any thought of making use of it here. However, as I read over that material, I find much now that seems to me presentable. So I shall soon be posting some pieces here.

I have decided, though, not to continue my former habit of always putting a picture of some sort at the head of each post. As much as I like having them as an aid to memory (for myself if not for my readers), they add to the burden of work, and consequently to the time, required for completing a post.