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Video Introduction to “The Angelic Ladder”

I recommend reading every post on this blog!

But one of the posts I’d especially recommend is the one entitled “The Angelic Ladder.” It articulates the intersection between deontology — “morality is all about the rules” — and consequentialism — “morality is all about what works.”

For us Christians, this affects:

  • Theodicy.
  • Theories of justice and responsibility.
  • Applied morality under the New Covenant.
  • And many, many more topics of theological vitality.

To help make it as easy as possible, I’d like to offer the following video introduction.

After watching the video, definitely follow-up by reading the article, “The Angelic Ladder.” It contains diagrams, extra details, and some more examples to really impart the importance of building our meta-ethics on the “ladder.”

 

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 2: Undead Philosophy

This is the second in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part was about the exploitation by media, and the second part (below) is about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Commission & Omission

undead1

Jimmy Fallon’s “Your Company’s Computer Guy,” about to recommend omitting action.

 

You’ve noticed that when confronted with a situation in which you must either commit action or omit action, you often take the omissive route due to a lack of information.

Acting recklessly beyond what is known can create all sorts of problems, which you know.

As a result, omissive action becomes generally correlated with “more correct” action.

But does this make omission less morally intense than commission? Is it always slightly more grevious, for example, to kill by commission than by omission?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Retribution & Remediation

undead2

Corporal punishment from the movie, “Catching Fire.”

 

You’ve noticed that when faced with the bad decision of someone over whom you have authority, you want to react in a way that teaches that person a lesson and corrects the problem, now and for the future.

This is the remedial prospect of assigning judgment.

But you’ve also noticed that, often, the response is something punitive — frequently, Pavlovian behavior modification that requires only that the person be repaid in proportion to how much you were wronged.

As a result, justice becomes generally correlated with “retributory” action.

But does this mean that this is the “point” of justice? Is the prospective “goal” merely to repay?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Assigning Responsibility

undead3

Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”: Very blameworthy.

 

You’ve noticed that bad results can often be attributed to a single person making a single bad decision.

Usually, we’re all working as hard as we can for productive results, and when that goal is undermined, it’s usually because someone screwed up. If the cofactor was something mindless — like a broken pipe for which nobody has responsibility — then we often say, “Nobody is responsible.”

Thus, finding responsibility becomes generally correlated with finding a single, blameworthy decisionmaker.

But does this mean that this is how responsibility “works”? Is there always a single person solely responsible? And is it useful to limit responsible cofactors exclusively to decisionmakers? And is responsibility always about blameworthiness, never about creditworthiness?

The answer to all three is, “No.”

But it can feel like “Yes” due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

“Finding” Value

undead4

An invaluable gold statue of Michael Jackson.

 

You’ve noticed that when you look at an object of value, you think of the value “living inside” that object.

You also value things without consciously valuing them; you value food not because your rational mind is convinced of its utility, but because without food you feel hunger. That feeling is out of your control, and so it further feels like the food “contains” value.

You’ve also noticed that an object “becomes” more valuable the more work it would take to acquire or reacquire, which is not something over which you have arbitrary control.

Finally, you’ve been taught that certain things are valuable — even those things, which, if you hadn’t been taught as such, you wouldn’t value.

Thus, this constant bombardment of correlative lessons can make you feel like an object can have “intrinsic value.”

But can it, really? Would gold be valuable if there were no valuing things — that is, minds with interests — to respect it? Is value purely objective?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Objective Taste

undead5

A veggie pizza from Maurizio’s.

 

We all agree that taste is a matter of taste. Some people are going to prefer Armanno’s Pizza on 12th and some people are going to prefer Maurizio’s Pizza on Washington.

You’ve just been hired, however, to head up local marketing for Maurizio’s. What do you do, given that taste is a matter of taste?

You could run a blind taste-test in service of finding the “aggregate taste,” such that you could boast, “Most people prefer Maurizio’s!”

Unfortunately, the results indicate that most people, in fact, prefer Armanno’s.

Uh oh.

How about this.

You put together a campaign that proclaims Maurizio’s is just better. It just “tastes better.”

It’ll be true for some people, right?

And by wrapping it in objective language, you’ve divorced it from fickle personal preferences and given it the mystique of objectivity. Its superiority has been enshrined on a pedestal that no filthy human hands have touched.

If you weren’t the marketer, someone else would be. And they’d eventually start playing around with objective language. That’s because there’s selective memetic momentum toward enshrining things preference-based as objective, preference-less facts.

Pretty sleazy, right?

But, what if the success of Maurizio’s had some huge, higher-order payoff for everyone? What if that connection was hard to show, or hard to articulate, but nonetheless 100% true? What if, in the here and now, it’s absolutely vital for society that folks be convinced to go against their personal impulsive pizza tastes and gravitate toward Maurizio’s?

Suddenly, wrapping the marketing of Maurizio’s pizza within incomplete, “objective” language, however sloppy and technically erroneous, starts to have utilitarian merit.

The language “bug” becomes useful.

But does this mean that it isn’t a bug? Does this selective momentum suggest that these things really are a matter of purely objective worth and purely objective “rightness”?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Correlative Bugs

Each of these examples have been of myths, driving persistent philosophical questions, from ancient debates to contemporary contemplation.

Is commission more morally intense than omission? No. Omission is just more often correct, because it usually is less reckless (but is sometimes more negligent).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is justice about pure retribution? No. Justice is about fixing a person or that which he represents in the abstract, but retribution is a very common, intuitive, and historically effective way of employing such fix attempts (even if the “fix” is “repair that which a murderer represents by locking him away forever”).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is assigning responsibility about finding a single blameworthy decisionmaker? No. Assigning responsibility is about finding all causal cofactors in service of what needs to be fixed or encouraged. This just, very often, points to a single person’s behavior in need of repair.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is there “intrinsic value”? No. Value is imputed by evaluators with interests. But there are all sorts of complications that make value seem, conceptually, “within object.”

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Are there “objective interests”? No. “Subjective-as-objective” language errors are just very often useful for behavior modification, and behavior modification has been historically effective — perhaps even necessary — for social stability.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

 

But the Undead are Entertaining

There’s a natural selective bias toward things that are exciting. It’s more fun to chatter than to sit in silence. Controversy is more entertaining than complacency. Story arcs sell better than story flatlines.

Remember that popular philosophy, just like anything else with the “popular” qualifier, is much more a product of memetics than of coherence or truth.


More reading:

 

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 1: Exploitation by Media

This is the first in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part will be about the exploitation by media, and the second part will be about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Let’s take a look at event patterns in the world.

When we notice, through some study, that pattern A is correlated with pattern B, what does it tell us?

  • Does it mean that A makes B more likely?
  • Does it mean that B makes A more likely?
  • Does it mean that a third pattern, C, makes both A and B more likely?
  • Or, was the coincidence of A and B simply random noise?

The sad fact is that we don’t know which of these causal possibilities (and a non-causal possibility) is actually true. This is why we say, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

It turns out, though, that the brain is very eager — dopamine stimulated — to jump to causal conclusions. Furthermore, we’re most excited at the possibility — of the above four — that is most startling and weird.

It “feels” like new revelation.

And Commercial Media Knows This

Let’s say there’s a study that correlates non-married cohabitation with a higher incidence of physical abuse. What is the most sensible, boring explanatory possibility?

The most sensible, boring explanatory possibility is that there is a third factor C — likely something to do with socio-economic status, and population density, and the cultural byproducts therefrom — that makes non-married cohabitation and physical abuse rise in tandem, without being causally related to one another with any statistical significance.

But that’s “boring.” It doesn’t sell tabloid newspapers and doesn’t serve as social clickbait.

The more “exciting” possibility is that being non-married causes abuse.

This would have us conclude, “To lower partner abuse, those partners should get married.”

Which is, of course, precisely the opposite strategy one should employ.

The problem is, again, that we love counterintuitive revelations. There’s a measured “second opinion bias” that has us feel excited about having the “privilege” of being an honest devil’s advocate. As soon as we’re tricked into thinking that some bizarre claim is merely misunderstood, or deceived into thinking it has statistical backing, its “bizarreness” becomes extra fuel to fight on its side with conviction.

Whenever you read, or hear from a friend, about a study showing some A-to-B causation, do the following in your brain:

  • Un-cause the causation. Separate the two parts into “A” and “B.”
  • Run through the four explanatory possibilities mentioned before.
  • Evaluate which possibility makes the most sense. Extra points if it’s also boring, which is a memetic weakness.

But Remember: Common Sense Isn’t Infallible

At the same time, remember that certain systems in the world really are very complex, and can yield causal relationships that are both counterintuitive and true. Common sense gets you past the exploitive headlines, but it’s no replacement for an actual, knee-deep understanding of complicated systems.

In other words, common sense isn’t “common,” but it also isn’t always “sense.”

And Remember: Studies Can Be Awesome or Crap

When I did product management for social games, one of my jobs was user experimentation and data analysis in order to make design decisions that optimized the interests of the customer and company.

The reality is this: Data is absolutely vital for getting a correlative, and ultimately causal, understanding of how the world works.

At the same time: There’s no shortage of ways to screw it up, and even maliciously fudge the data, and perhaps even get away with it. We’ve seen this happen with the “vaccines cause autism” fiasco, where an atrocious study catalyzed a tragic memetic bloom that, today, continues to threaten the health of our children.

Conclusion

I think, if we all get a healthy scrutiny against urban myths about causal claims, and fight hard for the “boring,” we’ll go a long way toward killing memetically strong falsehoods, which is necessary to optimize peace, wisdom, virtue, and charity in the world.

For more about memetics and how to avoid the value pitfalls therein, rewind to the four-part series we ran earlier this year.

 

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Survey of Reddit’s Christian Community on Homosexuality

I surveyed the Reddit community /r/Christianity on the topic of homosexuality. /r/Christianity contains mostly Christians, but also people of all faiths (and lacks thereof). It has nearly 80,000 subscribers at the time of this post.

Here are the results.

  • The survey received 2704 responses.
  • It’s not a random sample, not scientific, etc.
  • Responses with duplicate IPs after the first instance were deleted. There were 16 such submissions.
  • Most concerned about apparent bias in the verbiage thought I personally leaned anti-gay, which is incorrect. I did not respond myself, but my responses would have been: B, C, C, D, B, B, A, A, United States, G.
  • My paraphrasing used in the graphs, for brevity, do not 100% sync up with the question responses. Be familiar with the questions/answers before you skip to the graphs.

The first section lists all of the questions, the criticisms I received and, upon retrospect, gave myself, as well as the one-dimensional data.

The second section contains a list of cross-referenced responses I thought were interesting.

 

Question 1

1. What best describes your opinion on the propriety of homosexual intimacy?

  • It is always sinful and/or immoral.
  • Like with heterosexual intimacy, there are contexts in which it is — and contexts in which it is not — sinful and/or immoral.
  • There is no context in which consensual sexual intimacy is ever sinful or immoral.

Criticisms:

  • Many wanted more granular options as to the things that could make it immoral. For example, a person might believe adultery is immoral but promiscuity is not.

c1

Question 2

2. What best describes your attitude about non-active (that is, not having sex) homosexuals in the church?

  • Non-active homosexuals should not be welcome in the church at all.
  • Non-active homosexuals should not hold any office of authority.
  • There should not be any sort of special prohibition given to non-active homosexuals.

Criticisms:

  • Later, question #4 has both “any offices of authority” and “some offices of authority,” but that isn’t broken-out here.
  • Also, a person might answer the second option while believing the issue is (a) can’t marry, plus (b) lack of married qualification. This person might want a specific option for them.
  • Finally, “welcome in the church” is ambiguous; it could mean welcome in service, or welcome for membership.
 c2
Question 33. What best describes your attitude about active (that is, having sex) homosexuality in the church?

  • Active homosexuals should not be welcome in the church at all.
  • Active homosexuals should be welcome in the church, but must be actively urged to stop their homosexual intimacy.
  • Active homosexuals should be welcome in the church without any special risk of indictment.

Criticisms:

  • Many wanted more granularity on “actively urged.”
  • Also, “welcome in the church” is ambiguous; it could mean welcome in service, or welcome for membership.

c3

Question 4

4. What best describes your attitude about active (that is, having sex) homosexuals seeking offices of authority in the church?

  • As I said above, active homosexuals should not be welcome in the church at all.
  • Active homosexuals should be welcome in the church, but should not be able to pursue any office of authority.
  • Active homosexuals should be welcome in the church, and should be able to seek some offices of authority, but not others.
  • There should not be any sort of special prohibition given to active homosexuals in the church.

Criticisms:

  • Many wanted more granularity on “offices of authority.”
  • Also, “welcome in the church” is ambiguous; it could mean welcome in service, or welcome for membership.
  • Finally, “welcome in the church” is ambiguous; it could mean welcome in service, or welcome for membership.

c4

Question 5

5. Do you think popular acceptance of gay marriage will affect society negatively?

  • Who knows?
  • I think it will improve society, actually.
  • Probably not.
  • Maybe just a tiny bit.
  • I think it will affect it negatively somewhat.
  • I think it will have a major negative impact on society.
  • I think it will ruin society.

Criticisms:

  • Some wanted an option for “the government should not recognize any marriage.”
  • Some wanted the “certainty” on an orthogonal gradient.
  • Some wanted to clarify the negative impact as being a product of sin in general.
  • Some wanted more granularity on the “improve” end.
  • Some inferred unintended overtones from the use of the word “Actually,” when it was meant simply to unload the question; it should have been reworded.

c5

“Bad for society” aggregated:

c5b

 

Question 6

6. Do you think that the negative attention given — by the church in general — to active (that is, having sex) homosexuality is warranted?

  • No; active homosexuality is never sinful or immoral, so it should not receive negative attention at all.
  • No; there are many bigger fish to fry.
  • Yes; it has received its fair warrant of attention.
  • Yes, but it should be even more of a focus.

Criticisms:

  • The second option should have been worded in such a way that active homosexuality not be presumed to be a “fish to fry” at all.

c6

 

Question 7

7. Do you think that being homosexual (that is, the orientation or preference) is a choice?

  • No, or mostly no. Formative factors (whatever they might be) most likely dictate a person’s sexual orientation to a nearly-irresistible degree.
  • Yes, or mostly yes. A person can elect to sexually prefer those of the opposite sex, even if it takes some effort.

Criticisms:

  • The explication was too bifurcating. This question assuredly deserved more granularity, especially because many believed that it is a choice for some, and not for others.

c7

 

Question 8

8. Of the following two attributes typically given to God, which do you most try to emulate in your life?

  • His merciful love.
  • His discerning justice.
  • I try to emulate both equally.
  • I don’t believe God has these attributes.
  • I don’t believe in God.

Criticisms:

  • Some disputed the notion that mercy and justice cannot be expressed simultaneously, which is a notion I held as survey author.

c8

 

Question 9

9. What country are you from?

  • 87 Skipped
  • 2072 USA
  • 190 Canada
  • 102 Australia
  • 100 UK
  • 23 New Zealand
  • 15 Netherlands
  • 11 Germany
  • 11 Sweden
  • 9 Ireland
  • 6 Denmark, Philippines, Singapore
  • 5 India, Indonesia
  • 4 Brazil, Norway, Poland
  • 3 Czech Republic, France, Russia
  • 2 Finland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South Korea, Zimbabwe
  • 1 Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Ghana, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Liberia, Nigeria, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zambia

Question 10

10. Which of the following best describes the cohort to which you most belong?

  • Catholics
  • Orthodox
  • Mainline Protestants (an American term that lumps together “older” denominations like Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.)
  • Evangelicals
  • Charismatics
  • Mormons
  • Christians that cannot be considered part of the above 6 cohorts
  • Religious or spiritual people, but non-Christian
  • Non-religious and non-spiritual people

c10

 

Interesting Cross-Referenced Responses

Percentage “Country, >4 responses” against “Morality/immorality of gay intimacy.”

fix1

 

Percentage “Country, >4 responses” against “Social effect of gay marriage acceptance, clamped to ‘Unknown/Neutral/Improve’ vs. ‘Bad.'”

fix2

 

Percentage “Emulating God’s attributes” against “Negative social effect of gay marriage acceptance.”

cross1

Percentage “Countries, top 8 + skipped” against “Subscriptive cohort.”

cross5

Percentage “Countries, top 4,” against “Subscriptive cohort.”

cross12

 

Percentage “Subscriptive cohort” against “Countries, top 4,” inverted.cross7

Percentage “Emulating God’s attributes” against “Homosexuality chosen?”

cross8

Percentage “Homosexuality chosen?” against “Response to inactive homosexuals in church.”

cross10

 

Percentage “Subscriptive cohort” against “Emulating God’s attributes.”

cross11

 

Percentage “Subscriptive cohort” against “Homosexuality chosen?”

cross14

 

Percentage “Subscriptive cohort” against “Morality of gay intimacy.”

aux1

 

Percentage “Morality of gay intimacy” against “Effect of acceptance of gay marriage on society, ‘bad effects’ clamped.”

aux2

 

Percentage “Subscriptive cohort” against “Church response to active homosexuals.”

aux3

 

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Appellate Prayer, Sovereignty, and Superstition

For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.

1 John 5:14

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.

That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.

With All of Our Hearts

We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.

First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.

Philippians 4:5b-7

The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”

Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3

[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.

1 Chronicles 16:11

Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.

That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”

We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need

Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.

James 4:3,8a

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.

As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.

Romans 8:26-27

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

With All of Our Minds

At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.

It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.

We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.

  • Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
  • Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
  • Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.

That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”

Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayerReason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.

At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.

Between Heart and Mind

Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.

But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.

 

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When Should We Legislate Morality?

Is it good to push what we consider “Biblical morals” into law?

The answer is often “no,” for two very important reasons:

Reason 1

When church and state are mixed, the church is corrupted by the state, and the state is corrupted by this new church.

Reason 2

“My small church disagrees with your mega-church.”

Koinodoxy is not orthodoxy; what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

A Heuristic for Moral Legislation

It’s fine to legislate morality under the following set of conditions only:

  1. Without the law, things are (or would be) gravely harmful in terms of values near-universal to people.
  2. This harm is demonstrable (we can’t just declare the harm).
  3. The law would be demonstrably effective at fixing this problem (we can’t just assume the fix will work).
  4. The “costs” of the law and its byproducts would not outweigh its “benefits.”

It goes without saying that many Biblical proclamations would not qualify under the above conditions. Many come down to issues of discipline or scruple. Many are rooted in a bygone culture, like where braided hair was considered immodest. And many are explicitly meant only for the church.

This is why:

  • We don’t make laws against lying except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against getting angry except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
  • We don’t make laws against coveting, gossip, etc.

… even though the Bible clearly generally frowns upon lying, anger, coveting, and gossip.

Something in the world may irritate you or violate a tenet of moral propriety to which you hold. But if your first thought is, “There oughtta be a law!,” it may be a symptom of hasty prohibitionism.

Prohibitionism from Simple Thought

Many do not realize that “Is X morally wrong?” and “Should there be a law against X?” are two completely different questions.

Prohibitionism from Memetically Strong Fictions

In the heuristic above, you may have noticed that demonstrability is required at several stages. This is necessary to maintain a “sandbag wall” of careful criticism to defend ourselves against urban myths, “common sense” nonsense, and various other memetically strong fictions.

For example, did you know that in the late 19th century, American public schoolchildren — particularly in the culturally “drier” states — were taught that drinking alcohol could cause spontaneous combustion?

However ludicrous this was, memetic fiction can have a life of its own if left unchecked. Over-demonizing was one of the many factors that helped catalyze the later nationwide prohibition, which is now universally regarded as a complete disaster.

Prohibitionism from Tribal Pride

The attempt to inject religious prescriptions into state law without qualifying under the above conditions comes often from pride.

Consider pride in a hometown football team. If I love the Spearmen, I might put a “Go Spearmen!” banner in my window.

But as soon as I spraypaint “Go Spearmen!” on my neighbor’s house, I am a vandal, which is a certain brand of property thief.

spearmen

It doesn’t matter if I feel great pride in my Spearmen. I may say, “I feel that spraypainting my neighbor’s house would be standing up for my team, and expressing my support for the Spearmen.”

Unless I can demonstrate a grave harm in universal terms that would be fixed by my vandalism and that it would lack significant side-effects, my vandalism cannot be justified.

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Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning

Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.

  • This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
  • By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.

Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).

This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.

It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.

It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.

screwdrivers

This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.

The Rig

We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:

consequentialism

The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.

The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).

The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.

The Problem

The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:

reference

And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.

infinite

To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.

It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.

Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.

When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.

This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:

  • (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
  • (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
  • (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.

This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.

Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.

We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.

The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible

While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.

That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.

“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.

  • Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
  • What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 8:17b

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”

And so Solomon just stopped.

He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).

The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.

The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.

The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.

But, Objective Meaning is Useful

“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”

“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.

Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”

This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.

But, Not in the Bible

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!

They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.

If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”

The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.

Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.

See the follow-up to this post:

 

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“Omniscient Prole” Dilemmas

In pure consequentialism, an act is morally right if it produces results that represent an optimization of what is valued (whatever that is).

All statements of “should” or “ought” are built from two inputs:

  • “What is valued?,” i.e., “What is the goal, interest, or desire (or set thereof) to which I’m acting in service?” and
  • “For each prospective course of action, what will happen as a result?”

consequentialism

So we have our circles (input values or goals) and our squares (how things work). These always resolve into rounded rectangles (moral statements under consequentialism, e.g., “It is right to do X,” “I should do X,” “X is justified,” “X is correct,” “X is praiseworthy,” “Y is wrong,” “Y is suboptimal,” etc.).

Our Problem: We Are Numbskulls

The thing is, our squares are ill-defined. We may never have perfect squares because observations about the mechanics of the world, in general and in specific instances, may never be completely accurate.

And because the world is chaotic (that is, rather orderly, but nonetheless incalculably complicated), our faculties of foresight are dramatically limited.

We can’t even predict the weather accurately more than 3 days out. How much more terrible are we at predicting the effects of our actions on human behavior, including our own behavior?

We not only recognize that we don’t know that much about how the world works, but we simultaneously recognize that this ignorance leads to unintended consequences all the time.

We respect this intuitively, and we account for it in our decisionmaking.

Our Solution: Humility and Recognition of Uncertainty

Just as businesses account for risk in their decisionmaking, we individuals make intuitive attempts at accounting for risk. We recognize that our squares are severely crippled, and so many of our “shoulds” are loaded with qualifiers like “probably” and “maybe.”

For this reason, we say that pure consequentialism is impractical. We adopt some diluted form of consequentialism that recognizes our imperfect understanding of the world and the dramatic impact that imperfection has on our ability to predict the full consequences of our actions.

This includes even moral templates that allow for rules; it allows us to say that blanket, imperfect social laws may sometimes and in some places be required to correct for subjective error and individual stupidity.

So even as consequentialists, we reject pure consequentialism on the grounds that we are dummies. We humble ourselves below the status of omniscient beings because we know we aren’t.

See this post for an introduction to this concept, called “The Angelic Ladder.” We are “Near-Proles”; we are not completely stupid and blind to consequences, but we are pretty stupid, and pretty blind to consequences.

Loaded Moral Dilemmas

So, here’s the trick that many thought experiments pull:

  • They set up a situation that tests your decisionmaking in a consequential context.
  • They then give you some measure of implausible omniscience, e.g., “You know for absolute certain that pushing the fat man in front of the train will derail it, and that the train is certainly empty, and that the derailed train will not hurt the group of people you’re trying to save.”
  • They then watch as you squirm with the anxiety of being an “omniscient prole,” where you’re struggling to reconcile your learned, intuitive, hammered-in humility with the new God-power you’ve been granted by the situation.

The thought experiment wants you to think that it’s demonstrating that consequentialism is an incomplete description of morality and needs additional deontological (“morality is all about rules”) magic. But all it’s actually doing is showing that we are intuitively averse to pure consequentialism because we know we’re so limited.

In other words, morality isn’t some same-level hybrid of consequentialism and deontology. That’s something a lot of people think and something with which a lot of people struggle.

Rather, morality is consequential, but due to our limited faculties of foresight and understanding, we find it useful to employ bits of subordinate deontology.

I’ll again link you to the previous post on the subject, “The Angelic Ladder,” which serves as a primer to “rules under consequentialism.”

Dealing with Loadedness

If someone asks you, “Are you a piece of garbage, or do you just smell like one?,” how should you respond? No, don’t punch them in the face. Rather, choose one of the following options:

  • Indict the loadedness. “That’s a loaded question so I refuse to respond.”
  • Unload the question. “I am neither a piece of garbage, nor do I smell like one.”

Similarly, if someone gives you a moral dilemma loaded with implausible omniscience, either are fine:

  • Indict the loadedness. “That situation gives me implausible omniscience which ungrounds us completely, so I’m not going to respond as if my answer would reveal anything morally significant.”
  • Unload the situation. “I wouldn’t fathom that the man’s body would be able to derail the train, would worry that the train would contain passengers I’d put at risk, and would be concerned that a derailed train might hurt the very group I’d like to save. Sorry. Real situations are addled with uncertainty.”

(It so happens that if we’re dealing with a moral situation with low uncertainty and non-competing interests, then the more grounded that moral dilemma is, the easier it is to answer confidently.)

 

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Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing

  • “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
  • “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”

There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.

You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.

The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.

Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.

You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.

A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?

There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.

“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”

“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.

Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.

Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”

You’re afraid of being embarrassed.

You’re afraid of the anxiety.

You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.

By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.

After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.

I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”

Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.

I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?

I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.

But wait.

Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?

The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?

It was!

What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.

And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”

I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.

We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.

That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”

Little Sermon Sunday: Polycarp to the Prosperity-Gospelites

Okay, okay, we’re actually going to be reading excerpts from Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. But his words reach through death and time and culture, giving us advice today about avoiding the [g]ospel of “money, prestige, image, security,” and how [G]ospel-followers ought react to this [g]ospel and the followers thereof.

Polycarp writes:

‘But the love of money is the beginning of all troubles.’ Knowing, therefore, that ‘we brought nothing into the world, nor can we take anything out,’ let us arm ourselves with ‘the weapons of righteousness,’ and let us first teach ourselves to follow the commandment of the Lord.

I have been deeply grieved for Valens, who once was an elder among you, because he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him. I warn you, therefore: avoid love of money, and be pure and truthful. ‘Avoid every kind of evil.’ But how can a man who is unable to control himself in these matters preach self-control to someone else? If a man does not avoid love of money, he will be polluted by idolatry, and will be judged as [those] who are ignorant of the Lord’s judgment.

Therefore, brothers, I am deeply grieved for [Valens] and for his wife; may the Lord grant them true repentance. You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies, but as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety. For by doing this you build up one another.

For I am convinced that you are all well trained in the sacred Scriptures and that nothing is hidden from you (something not granted to me). Only, as it is said in these Scriptures, ‘be angry but do not sin,’ and ‘do not let the sun set on your anger.’ Blessed is the one who remembers this, which I believe to be the case with you.