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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis

In the first two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

In the third video, we talked about how some of the neuropsychological patterns that drive our decisionmaking can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”). In that video, we focused primarily on loss aversion.

In this video, we’re going to talk about another such pattern, called secret gnosis stimulation.

secretgnosis

We’ll find out why having and enjoying “hidden knowledge” can make you feel privileged, validated, and “rooted” to your local “tower,” even if it’s not tallest. This “hidden knowledge” often takes the form of esoteric or counterintuitive claims that can be convincing when internally consistent, and/or without a competitor recognized as viable.

We’ll also discuss several specific case examples of groups of people who are rooted to false conspiracy theories. Controversial!

Secret gnosis stimulation is very effective here, too. … It gets you locked into conspiracy theories when the body of [apparent evidence for the conspiracy] is dwarfed by reality.

Schedule

 

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Kicking Baal Out of Schools

You live in the United States. In the Constitution, it says that congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

One of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, described this amendment as a “wall of separation between the church and the state.”

You go to a state-run public school, which must conform to this Constitutional maxim.

First Day of School

It’s your first day at this school, having arrived in a new town after moving.

You get on the bus and are driven to school. The bus parks, but the door hasn’t opened yet. The bus driver is sitting there, silent.

A student in the very front stands up. She is wearing a strange conical hat.

“All who worship Baal Hadad as master and lord, raise your hand in reverence!” she shouts. All of the other children raise their hands and look around.

Several notice that you’re not raising your hand, and begin to whisper and murmur to one another. Soon, everyone is talking about you, and looking at you like something is completely wrong with you.

You really want to leave. Why isn’t the bus driver opening the door? You stand up and walk hurriedly down the aisle.

“Let me off,” you shout at the bus driver.

“Of course, you’re not captive,” says the driver, and opens the door for you.

But Soon…

You go to your first class. The bell rings for class to start, but the teacher is sitting silently at her desk, reading.

Like on the bus before, a student up front, wearing a conical hat, stands up and addresses the students.

“Let us now sing praises to Baal Hadad, king of the heavens!” he shouts.

He begins to sing. The other students join him. You don’t want to be a part of this.

You get up to walk to the teacher, who is still reading silently. As you do, the other students stop singing, and stare, aghast that you would interrupt the worship. They give you horrible looks and scoff.

You ask the teacher to be excused.

“Of course,” the teacher says, and gives you a pass to read in the library until the lesson begins.

You come back 10 minutes later, and the teacher has already started teaching. You rush to take your seat.

This happens in several subsequent classes. Sometimes singing, sometimes a creed recital, sometimes a prayer, sometimes a “meditative moment of silence.”

Similar things happen at lunch.

You go to an assembly. Same thing.

Each time, no school faculty is directly involved. They just sit silently while the students lead the Baal-worship. And each time, when you ask to be excused, you’re allowed.

Legal Action

This is a horrible state of affairs that clearly violates that “wall of separation” of which the Jefferson wrote. This town of Baal-worshipers is transparently and cynically incorporating Baal-worship into their public school system by using a “back door” of “periods of inactivity” + “student-prompted actions.”

You decide to hire a lawyer and try to put a stop to this.

The resolution is that if public school faculty has reasonable knowledge that a student plans to perform religious rituals for reasons other than pure, curricula-driven education, they have to stop it. Otherwise, they are giving official permission, even if it’s veiled under the auspices of “faculty passivity” and “student freedom.”

The Supreme Court hands down this decision.

To violate this decision is to violate the Constitution.

The Social Aftermath

The incorporation of prayers and worship and creeds to Baal disappears at your school.

Now, instead of getting dirty looks from students for asking to be excused, you get dirty looks from students and their parents.

They blame you for “kicking Baal out of schools” and falsely complain that the school has “banned prayer.”

Conclusion

State-run institutions should not be complicit in the worship of deities, because not everyone believes in those deities.

As Christians, we should be passionate about making sure that everyone is treated with charity and equity, and not attempt to force our beliefs on others through state-run institutions.

Prideful shows of allegiance, intimidating social pressure, and ostracism do nothing but sow resentment and discomfort in non-believers. This is trivially obvious when you craft an imaginary situation in which you’re in “their shoes.”

 

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Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem

In the last two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

But that’s not the whole picture. Vital to memetics is an understanding of how neuropsychological patterns can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”).

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important patterns to understand — loss aversion — and how it impacts memetics.

We’ve already talked about loss aversion twice on this site:

  • In “Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing,” we talked about the reluctance to commit our charity, a failing against which we must fight.
  • In “Up a Tree,” we talked about a good way to think about loss aversive rooting behavior. Today’s video will echo some of these themes.

Its impact on memetics is manifold, and I think you’ll enjoy how the breakdown plays out through the story of the tower seeker.

(For those familiar with genetic algorithms, this is “local maxima” in function.)

Get out there and really investigate. I can’t believe this guy when he says, “I’m an authority,” “I’m Dr. Tower (even if he is Dr. Tower),” “They have a conspiracy”… These things might all be the case, but you are the final gatekeeper to the keep of what you believe.

Schedule

 

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Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)

In the first of our four-part series on memetics, we talked about how the virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”) of ideas determines the flourishing of those ideas, even if those ideas are bad in terms of things we call “goodness,” like truth, justice, and quality of life.

This has the counterintuitive result of labeling really bad things as “fit.”

Today, we’re going to apply this to a thought experiment in which four brothers try to make their businesses successful through four different strategies.

First, we’ll meet Reilly, Murtagh, Shane, and Lochlan.

booths

Later in the video, we’ll also be introduced to a fifth (bonus!) brother, Gerrard, and see what strategy he employs, and how it works out for him.

The illustration of the brethren and their booths will demonstrate how:

… memetic action — resilience and virulence — is what matters [for flourishing]. Truth kinda goes by the wayside. Making sense can kinda go by the wayside. And if you and I care about truth and making sense — which I’m sure we do — then we’ve gotta watch out…

Schedule

 

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Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag

Evolutionary patterns can be applied, by analogy, to anything that has similar basic mechanics of virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”).

Those basic mechanics aren’t that big of a deal and aren’t controversial. If something spreads and sticks, passing various selective “tests,” it has a better chance to flourish.

We take advantage of this fact when we utilize genetic algorithms in software. The software isn’t dealing with real organisms, cells, or DNA, but we don’t need those things — we just need mechanics analogous to those basic evolutionary principles.

Over the last few decades, we’ve all started to recognize that social information has mechanics analogous to these basic evolutionary principles.

Again, this shouldn’t really be controversial — obviously, some ideas are better than others at spread-iness and stickiness, and are tested against various selective agents in the environment.

This is important to recognize, however, because the various conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns we recognize in genetic evolution can help us power past conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns that have been infecting theology, philosophy, and any other social collection of ideas.

In the church, this bears itself out in:

  • Doctrinal disputes
  • Persistent error or incoherence
  • Church aesthetics and “seeker-sensitivity”
  • And much, much more

The following is the first in a four-part series of a basic introduction to memetics, and how it affects philosophy and theology.

At 7:25:

So here’s the weird thing. You can have a genotype that has great virulence and resilience, but is bad in terms of things [of which we] say, ‘We think this thing is good.’

For instance, it might be bad for justice, it might be bad for truth, it might be bad for quality of life, it might be bad for all of these things — but because it is high in virulence and resilience, it wins.

It dominates the environment over time.

Ugh! That’s lame!

Schedule

 

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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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Logical Wildcards

Let’s say you think you’re playing Five Card Draw, no wilds. You ship some cards and get some back, and end up with a measly pair of deuces.

flush

This isn’t looking so hot. You’ve been bluffing a great hand this round, and don’t have the goods to back it up.

“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” says your friend Harriet, “Bernice is dealer and — while you were in the kitchen — called this round as deuces wild.”

What? Deuces wild? Just as you’re about to complain that the whole round was contaminated, you suddenly realize that with deuces wild, you have a royal flush!

The Utility of Wildcards

Wildcards are extremely useful. They can turn weak hands into kingmakers. They can turn low pairs into royal flushes.

Their power is that they don’t mean anything discrete and coherent unless and until they’re integrated into a final, optimal hand resolution. At that moment, they mutate and solidify into whatever the player pleases.

There is an analogous object, with analogous utility, in logic and rhetoric. Any claim that has no discrete and articulable truth value can qualify, and there are many ways that a claim can be “amorphous” in this manner.

  • A claim may be many-faced. “My car is pleasing.” Well, what does that mean? Jake could call his car pleasing, when it doesn’t even work, but looks nice in his driveway. Vera could call her car pleasing, when it looks like junk, but performs great on the road.
  • A claim may be nonsensical. “My house is a thing against which there house is no house my house isn’t my house in transcendence, cannot it being.” The preceding sentence probably invokes various images in your mind’s eye, but it does not cohere, and thus can’t have a truth value.
  • A claim may be otherwise vague, unclear, ambiguous, or wide open to interpretation.
  • A claim may have a hidden referent. The many-faced example above is also a good example here. If the referent is explicated (what pleases Jake versus what pleases Vera), it can cohere. But as long as the question is without its necessary referent, it lacks a truth value. Subjective claims that are mistakenly put into objective language are very often guilty of this referent-lacking problem.

If any of these problems are present and yet are undetected, and treated like coherent and solid claims with discernible truth values, they can mutate and solidify around whatever the hand-holder desires.

Bridge-Making

Cheryl is late to my party, and I’m worried that she might be lost. In a misguided effort to comfort me, Brent claims the following:

  • “Cheryl is flawless at finding a house if she knows its address.
  • Thus, Cheryl is not lost.”

Of course, at this point, I think, “But what if she doesn’t know my address?” Brent suspects I might be thinking this, but doesn’t himself know whether she has my address or not. So he tells me something deliberately vague:

  • “Cheryl has quasi-panomic knowledge.”

What does that even mean? Further inquiry yields only more such strange statements from Brent, each more unclear than the last, but all in supposed service of clarifying that odd term.

He hopes that I will eventually give up and accept his statement as a bridge. This happens when the images conjured by what he’s saying — a sense of “knowledge” and “full,” at least — come to a rest at some inferred coherent place, like, “She has my address.”

But I refuse to quit, and shout, “Brent! Does she have my address or not?”

“I’m trying to tell you the answer to that!” he says, “You see…” and then continues with the ambiguity.

Now, instead of coming to rest at something vaguely conjured, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise in service of any conclusion.”

Bridge-Breaking

Soon, Brent appears to be drunk. “How many drinks have you had, Brent?” I say.

“Eight,” he says.

“In an hour??” I say.

“Yeah,” he answers.

“You’re drunk,” I proclaim.

“No I’m not! I’ve got a just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” he says.

“A ‘just-firm and nigh-set constitution?'” I ask.

“Absolutely,” he responds. “It means that eight drinks in an hour does NOT mean that I’m drunk. Such a thing would be unthinkable.”

I press him for a more dissected meaning of “just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” in order to determine whether he “has that,” whatever it is, but only ambiguity and dangling references (like circular references) come forth.

How on Earth can I determine whether he has the thing that invalidates my conclusion when the thing’s definition is “that which invalidates your conclusion” and nothing more?

Now, instead of coming to rest at the vaguely-conjured image of someone exceptionally tough who can hold a lot of alcohol without issue, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise that would stop the accepted premises — how many drinks you’ve had in this period of time — from yielding the conclusion that you’re drunk.”

Brents Everywhere

These examples are rather silly, but in the abstract and confusing worlds of philosophy and theology, Brents abound.

And they’re incentivized to proliferate! Wildcard-loaded hands are “better.” And confusion, “subjective-as-objective,” and ambiguity all yield exciting conversations in fruitless attempts to reach cohesion.

This is especially the case in theology, where it is accepted and acknowledged that various revelatory statements are mysterious and beyond our comprehension. The error comes when those mysteries are treated as non-mysteries for the purposes of bridge-making and bridge-breaking.

As believers, we hold to revealed mysteries faithfully. But we should regard them with enough humble reverence not to treat them like pilons or sledgehammers.

In the meantime, if someone employs some strange term as a premise and refuses to articulate it in a coherent way, treat that term like it’s toxic glowing green and reject their logic until they take a break and figure out what they’re trying to say.

Bonus Video

This video, called “The Difficult Ds we Get for Free,” talks about how formal logic gets us “free truth” as corollaries of benign premises, but how the “dirty tricks” of ambiguity can be used as logical wildcards.

 

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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!”

The Relentless Robot: Methodological Naturalism and NOMA

Methodological naturalism is the idea that it’s imprudent to invoke supernatural intervention as an explanation when such miraculous intervention may not be necessary. This is a pillar of mainstream science.

And how do you determine whether supernatural intervention was necessary for some observation?

By assuming, for the sake of argument, that something supernatural did not intervene, and then genuinely attempting to find a sufficient natural (that is, mechanistic) explanation.

The Relentless Robot Thought Experiment

You live on planet Chalybos, and you’ve been taught from birth that the core of the planet is made of an indestructible substance. You begin a mission to search for that indestructible substance.

You’re not the first Chalyban to have this idea. Many people have before begun similar digging adventures.

The first such explorer hit a really tough substance 50 meters down. He was convinced that this was the indestructible core. He wailed on the substance for weeks, but it wouldn’t break. Finally, after failing to dig any deeper, he proclaimed that he had, indeed, found the core.

Later, a different explorer brought a team along with him. After months of working at the stubborn material, they broke through. The material wasn’t indestructible at all; the core had not been reached.

This happened again and again in the history of Chalybos. A team would reach a layer seemingly invulnerable, and proclaim their victory in terms of having discovered the planet’s core. But then a subsequent team would work a little harder and longer and break through what before was claimed to be the core.

And then, the cycle would repeat.

To deal with this, you decide to build a robot that is programmed to dig downward. Even if the robot hits a surface that he has trouble with, he never gives up. He always treats anything he encounters as if he can break through.

robot

  • In some ways, this robot has a weakness: He is stuck in full-throttle dig-mode. He has no perceptions and no decisionmaking faculties. Furthermore, if indeed he does hit the true core one day, he’ll continue digging into it, fruitlessly, forever.
  • In other ways, this robot has a strength: He will never give up too soon and falsely proclaim victory, as so many explorers before you had done.

Here are a few opinions of fellow Chalybans:

  • Seeing this repetitive pattern of false victories and deeper digs, some conclude that there is no indestructible core at all. There is only an “indestructible core of the gaps,” shrinking every time a team breaks through and digs deeper.
  • Eventually, the robot hits a surface that he spends years working against with no success. Some, at this point, say, “We believe the robot has finally arrived at the core — but we must keep him powered, forever, because there is a chance that we’re wrong.”
  • Others say, “He has certainly arrived at the core. We should save our energy and shut the robot off. His job is finished.”
  • Etc.

No Obvious Answer

Can you see the reasoning behind the skeptics who reject the idea of an indestructible core? Can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, but refuse to disconnect the robot? And can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, and thus the robot should be disconnected?

I can see the reasoning behind all of these perspectives. None of them are completely meritless nor certainly meritorious.

Methodological naturalism is like the relentless robot. It chews through superstition and baseless supernatural conjecture. Layer after layer, it refuses to quit. To some, this is evidence that there’s no indestructible core at all, that is, there is nothing in existence that does lacks an mechanistic and explanatory underpinning. But I don’t think that necessarily follows. Methodological naturalism is a preference heuristic, not dogma.

I say, “keep the robot going,” while simultaneously putting faith in a God who I believe has interacted with my life in a meaningful, powerful, and efficacious way. This is what Stephen Jay Gould meant by “non-overlapping magisteria.” My beliefs about the core are orthogonal to the activity and revelations of the robot, though they are updated if and when the robot forces it.

 

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