What’s In A (Nick)name?

At the men’s issue blog The Art of Manliness there was an interesting post recently which helped me make sense of two separate phenomena — the ubiquity of nicknames in groups of men and our affectionate use of put-downs — that have puzzled me before.

The post briefly discussed various types of nicknames by introducing the following categorizations:

Referential nicknames are used for well known public figures, i.e. using “The British Bulldog” to refer to Winston Churchill.  

Private nicknames are  generally used between lovers, such as “honey” or “sweetheart”.

Public nicknames are ones given by family or friends, probably very early in life, which are permanent or near-permanent.  

Generic nicknames often pick out a distinguishing feature of a person, like “doc” for a doctor.  

Group nicknames are nicknames which are generally only known about and used in the context of a group.  

The last category were the focus of the post.  Group nicknames, in effect, create an exclusivity by establishing a new group language and a new set of identities for members of the group.  While an outsider may know a man’s group nickname, he probably knows better than to use it for fear of causing offense.  It strikes me that this could be tested empirically, and for all I know maybe it has.

Though group nicknames can sound silly or even derisive to outsiders, they are

boundary-defining and boundary-maintaining mechanisms that draw a line both between who is in a group of men and who is out, and between that group and the outside world.

No evidence was cited supporting the claim that groups of non-males don’t use group nicknames as much as groups of males, but at least in my experience this seems to be true.

The authors point out that this sheds some light on why many group nicknames do start out as mildly (or even extremely) derogatory.  If a man is able to withstand being hazed by the group, it shows a certain level of trust in its members.

If this logic is extended it can also help think about why so much of male-to-male communication consists of insults.  Men are not the most emotionally open of creatures, and habitually greeting another man with  “what’s up motherfucker?” may in fact be a gentle probing for sustained trust and goodwill.  A man who does secretly harbor bad feelings will eventually have a negative reaction to this, and whatever issues are present can potentially be dealt with.

It’s also interesting to think about the apparent exceptions in my case.  I for one nickname almost everyone, but that’s probably an outgrowth of my playful attitude towards words and language.  And my brother and I haven’t regularly put each other down in years.  On reflection, that may have to do with the fact that we live on different continents and don’t ever see each other.  If ribbing and mild derision create bonds in face-to-face communications, maybe the parts of my brain responsible for generating this behavior don’t activate for a relationship that has migrated onto the internet.

One wonders what mechanisms of cohesion, if any, might arise to unite groups formed and maintained predominantly online.

Review: “The Little Book Of Atheist Spirituality”.

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville is a well-written foray into God-free mysticism and spirituality.  Less an assault on the edifice of theism than a gentle admonition, The Little Book is not a place to go for polemics.  Rather, Comte-Sponville expresses his ideas with the sympathetic firmness of a wizened elder who knows that he may be trespassing on a deeply held belief, assuring the wavering person that there is meaning to be found in a universe devoid of God.

I have few in the way of criticisms, and some of them may stem unavoidably from the necessarily deep and heady subject matter.  Comte-Sponville is apparently an extraordinarily erudite man, as he adorned this work with references to Freud, Pascal, Leibniz, and a wealth of other scholars.  In the span of one paragraph there were quotes from Angelus Sileus, Simone Weil, unnamed haikus and Zen masters, and Krishnamurti.  His ability to draw on a wealth of resources is no doubt one of his strengths, but at times the book began to feel like learned bricolage, and I grew weary of yet more quotes from this or that heavyweight thinker.  That said, I never felt like the tone was pretentious or deliberately confusing.

Furthermore, I found myself scratching my head at certain passages near the end of the book, in which Comte-Sponville really digs into his views on mysticism.   Since I’ve never tried my hand at describing powerful spiritual experiences, I won’t denigrate someone else’s efforts.  Regular emotions are difficult to describe, to say nothing of the rare states of mind which can genuinely be spoken of as mystical or transcendent.

Though I occasionally lost the narrative and I felt like it was too sanguine about religious belief, The Little Book is a welcome accompaniment to the atheist literature.

Religion…

The book is divided into four parts.  In the first Comte-Sponville attempts to analyze what religions are, irrespective of whether or not God exists, and discusses the aspects of religion that we can’t do without.

A religion, on his view, is “any organized set of beliefs and rituals involving the sacred, the supernatural or the transcendent (this is the broad sense of the term) and specifically involving one or several gods (this is the restricted sense), which beliefs and rituals unite those who recognize and practice them into a moral and spiritual community”.  He notes that there are non-theistic religions, as well as religions which began as philosophies and became religious over time, but doesn’t get into the details.  I think the thrust of his characterization is fair.

There are two things society definitely needs which are often sought from, but don’t require, religion.  These are communion and fidelity.  Communion is defined as a deep and lasting sense of cohesion.  Where laws and force fail, cohesion provides a bedrock upon which to build a civilization.  Instead of religion, atheists have the option of building communion around internalized values like freedom, justice, and peace.  This process of internalization stems from fidelity, which he conceives as a sustained contemplation and re-reading of shared ideas and texts.  Again, there is no reason to presume that everyone must read religious texts, or that they must take them seriously as descriptions of reality.  The atheist might nominate great works of poetry, art, music, and philosophy for inclusion in a shared canon which contains ideas that should be reflected upon.

The latter half of this section is spent decrying the twin evils of sophistry (the denial of truth) and nihilism (the denial of meaning).  The book asserts that the sentence “nothing is true” itself claims to be truth — if nothing is true, then that includes the sentence “nothing is true”!  Ergo, it’s meaningless.  No system of knowledge is absolute, but it is obvious that progress has been made.

The book in its entirety can be thought of as refuting nihilism.  No compelling argument for moral realism is ever offered, however, which I find rather surprising.  Comte-Sponville just claims that we shouldn’t be raping people because it’s beneath human dignity.  Lots of atheists claim that humans can be good without God, but fewer of them offer strong, comprehensive moral theories.  The book would’ve been considerably strengthened if it had offered such a theory, I think.

…God…

As with “religion”, the Comte-Sponville’s sets up the following nominal definition of God as “…an eternal, spiritual and transcendent being, both exterior and superior to nature, who consciously and voluntarily created the universe.”

His case against God comes into two stages.  In the first, he addresses what he sees as weaknesses with philosophical arguments for the existence of God.  In the second, he notes that, in addition to these weakness, there seems to be little in the way of positive evidence for him either.

Since he doesn’t venture too far into philosophical thickets in discussing these proofs, I won’t either.  The Ontological Proof fails because you can’t just define things into existence, and saying that something exists doesn’t add anything to our concept of it.

He doesn’t address the Cosmological Argument in a way that I feel is very strong.  There may just be things that are unexplainable, he says, like why there is something rather than nothing.  But even if we were to grant that there is a unmoved mover, we wouldn’t have any way to know that it is God.

Finally, the argument from design fails because the universe doesn’t seem to bear the imprint of a designer.  He spends time dissecting the clock analogy.   True, if we were to find a clock in the desert, we’d assume it was designed.  But then, clocks don’t give birth to other clocks, and they don’t change.  The analogy, he concludes, is a poor one, and that’s before we factor in all the waste and examples of bad design that we find in nature.

Beyond all this, though, even more trouble remains.  Comte-Sponville muses that, if God wanted to have a relationship with each person, he wouldn’t spend so much time in silence.  Moreover, invoking God as an explanation basically amounts to making sense of one mystery by reference to an even greater mystery!  Add to this the fact that there is prodigious amounts of evil and suffering in the world, and the universe begins to look very much like one that wasn’t designed by an omnipotent, loving God.

I’m necessarily leaving a lot out of the analysis, and I don’t want to make it sound like his arguments are shallow and unsophisticated.  They aren’t, and they deserve to be pondered.

…Spirituality

It is, ironically, this section of the book about which I have the least to say.  I recommend purchasing it for an in-depth discussion, but Comte-Sponville’s account of mysticism, as I read it, amounts to the feelings that accompany the dissolution of the self.  For brief, joyous moments, the world, and time, drop away, and a person can be at one with the all-encompassing vastness of the universe, perceiving no difference between themselves and reality. He gives various characteristics like “immanensity” and “plenitude” to this feeling, but it ultimately boils down to there temporarily no longer being a “you” standing separate from reality.

Many of my atheistic fellow travelers think little of mysticism, but I am sympathetic to those who pursue it outside of religious faith.  Having read this book, I wonder if there might not be ways of more reliably fostering such experiences.  Meditation is an obvious answer, of course, but maybe there are others that I just don’t know about.  Either way, I found the book enlightening and easy to read.  I would recommend it to anyone who is de-converting, or anyone who is interested in the spiritual side of naturalism.

Atheism’s Bad Arguments: Who Designed The designer?

Atheists have bad arguments, too.

Consider the perennial favorite “if God created everything, then who created God”? The supposedly fatal infinite regress (IR) has appeared in the writing of atheist icons Dawkins and Hitchens, not to mention in the comments threads of an uncountable number of internet debates.  I’m not guiltless either, as I frequently brandished this conversation stopper when I was but a brand new and self-righteous convert to atheism.  

We have the reasoning clearly laid out for us in this passage from Michael Shermer:

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? This is one of those profound questions that is easy to ask but difficult to answer. For millennia humans simply said, “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence out of nothing. But this just begs the question of what created God—and if God does not need a creator, logic dictates that neither does the universe.

Thankfully I encountered a thorough demolition of it in the highly-recommended blog (now archive) Common Sense Atheism, written by Luke Meuhlhauser. He pointed out that the IR is a problem for science as well as theism.  In our attempts to make the world more explicable it’s not uncommon to postulate the existence of some particle, mathematical constant, or mental faculty.  These components of our models and theories may spend years making sense of data before an explanation is found for them.  While there might be plenty of problems with using God as an explanation, his lack of an explanation isn’t one of them.

In addition to the fact that science often relies on explanatory entities that are themselves unexplained, the IR is usually written in a way that indicates a complete unawareness of a standard theistic reply, the Kalam Cosmological argument (KCA).  It seems unsportsmanlike to issue a challenge to one of the longest lasting and most deeply held beliefs of humans as a species and then not even browse the thousands of pages that have been written in response.  It’s fine to think the argument fails (I do), but atheists shouldn’t be pretending that it doesn’t exist.

The KCA

The KCA has a long history and is a fiercely debated topic in philosophy of religion.  If you don’t know, it basically runs like this:

1) Everything that began to exist had a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe had a cause.

After these premises, apologists like William Lane Craig might add a 4th and 5th step trying to demonstrate that the cause of the universe had to be personal, omnipotent, etc. This paves the way for evidence of the resurrection of Christ to establish the validity of the Christian worldview. Or that seems to be the plan, for Christian apologists anyway.

Premise one seems relatively uncontroversial from my point of view, and premise two is supported by enormous amounts of physical evidence.  The theist can try to escape the infinite regress by saying that only things within space and time begin to exist. God, being outside of the universe, didn’t need to begin existing, so he is uncaused and eternal in a way that nothing physical ever could be. Being atemporal, it could be argued that God *couldn’t* have begun to exist. One wonders whether an omnipotent God could force himself to have a beginning.

So then why am I an atheist?

Since I know about the KCA and I’m not a theist or even a deist, I don’t think the argument succeeds.  As the motivation for this post was to point out one example of bad reasoning amongst my fellow atheists and not to offer an articulation of my atheist philosophy, I’ll only briefly sketch why I think God didn’t create the universe.

First, God fails as an explanation for…well…pretty much anything.  Over time it has been discovered that in general good explanations are as simple as possible, agree with the other things we think are true about the world, offer testable predictions, and explain a wide range of phenomena (note: this list is far from exhaustive).  “God did it” does explain pretty much everything, I guess.  But it isn’t nearly as simple as it appears at first, it disagrees with substantial portions of science, and it is consistent with any conceivable observation.  I hope to return to some of these issues in philosophy of science.

Further, God is, as far as I can tell, almost always considered a supernatural agent.  Given the amazing success of naturalism in explaining the world, it seems reasonable to be wary of supernatural explanations, which have a poor track record.  Note carefully that I’m not ruling out supernatural explanations a priori.  But one of these ways of explaining the world has proven more useful, so far, than the other, and I’m not going to pretend this isn’t the case.

So at the end of the day, I don’t know what caused the Big Bang, why the constants are fine-tuned, or why there is something rather than nothing.  But given God’s explanatory poverty and supernaturalism’s abysmal performance compared to naturalism, I feel justified in not looking to theology for an answer.

I’d like to close by saying that there might be a version of the IR which has some teeth.  I’d welcome having my mind changed on the topic.

A Cure For Nihilism.

Every so often I have an acute attack of existential angst, and I have to set aside a few hours to rediscover the meaning of existence and assure myself that life is worth living; chalk it up to being a philosophical type.  I like the solution pointed to in this xkcd comic.

The future is an adventure, and just because the universe doesn’t care whether we live or die doesn’t mean we don’t matter.

The First Roundup of Links

I’ve been reading a lot about the Enlightenment lately.  Here are some sources that have been useful:

http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/enlightenment.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/enlightenment/

All three are good, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (3rd link) is a particularly good resource on anything related to philosophy.

Going hand in hand with this, I’ve also recently finished reading Candide by Voltaire.

In one sitting I read the brief but forceful polemic “Letter to a Christian Nation“, by Sam Harris.  I’m currently about halfway through “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality”.  Up next will probably be Bertrand Russel’s famous “Why I am not a Christian”.  Any of these may be fodder for posts in the future.

In an effort to improve my writing I came across some exercises in sentence combining and building which I have found to be useful.  Note that sentence combining and sentence building are two different things.  The linked website isn’t particularly well organized, but the material is worth a little digging.

Psy’s catchy and hilarious Kpop song/video “Gangnam Style” has achieved staggering popularity abroad and on the internet, with over 127,000,000 views as of this writing.  Lurking beneath the hypnotic beat and celebrity cameos may be a pointed critique of Korean society, as discussed in this illuminating piece by Max Fisher at the Atlantic.

The brief science fiction piece “Three Worlds Collide” by Eliezer Yudkowsky made me laugh and tied my brain into knots.  It’s worth a read if you like brainy shit.  His “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” is both longer but in my opinion more accessible, so you may want to check that out too.

The Implications of Studying Consciousness

Writing in Slate magazine, Daniel Bor’s article “when do we truly become conscious” offers a nice Eagle-eye view of the current state of consciousness research, with a focus on how experimental data can inform opinions on abortion, animal rights, and other political issues. He is by turns poetic, informative, and deeply personal; this juxtaposition is fitting when discussing the objective study of subjectivity.

…many fields, such as the study of what distinguishes life from nonlife, had their earlier magical states eroded by careful scientific study. Consciousness is in the midst of a similar revolution.

This is certainly true, and I’m as hopefully as anyone else that we’ll come to a deep understanding of consciousness.  But I worry that Bor’s optimism on this point is misplaced.  It may just be historical bias, but there seems to be a depth to the puzzle of consciousness lacking in the puzzle of life.  Even if we do somehow prove that consciousness reduces to certain patterns of information which tend to be realized in certain neural configurations, I’m not sure it will be clear at that point why some types of information processing are conscious while others are not.  In my opinion, this question is among the most profound that humans can ponder.

He further writes:

we are closing in on establishing a consciousness meter—a way to measure levels of awareness in any being that may be able to experience the world.

This is a fascinating development that I wasn’t aware of.  Now, in fairness, I haven’t read his book, and I’m sure he didn’t have space to address every possible objection.  But I’m not confident that we understand consciousness well enough to confidently abbreviate the list of things that can experience the world.

Let me explain.

When he discusses some of the wetware now thought to be necessary for consciousness, Bor is careful to clearly state that this holds for adult humans.  In light of this caveat, how sure are we that ferns and rocks aren’t conscious?  I don’t think they are, but if consciousness is

related to a certain kind of information processing, in which multiple strands of data are drawn together, and…is dependent on a certain kind of network architecture

then I don’t see any reason to imagine that those patterns can’t be instantiated elsewhere in the universe.  This is the sheerest of speculation (and not a view I endorse, by the way), but might it not be possible that complex weather patterns flicker with a consciousness as they evolve and assume various configurations?  Unless we have good reason to think that only certain information processing schemes are conscious, it remains a possibility (it’s also possible that storms are conscious in a way that bears no resemblance to human consciousness; I’ll leave debates like that for another day).

Later:

Whether I’m reveling in a glowing pleasure or even if I’m enduring a sharp sadness, I always sense that behind everything there is the privilege and passion of experience. Our consciousness is the essence of who we perceive ourselves to be. It is the citadel for our senses, the melting pot of thoughts, the welcoming home for every emotion that pricks or placates us. For us, consciousness simply is the currency of life.

I agree. These days I simply can’t imagine having a concern that didn’t eventually become a question of consciousness and its states.  Any goal or aspiration I could have, no matter how lofty and abstract, could be subjected to a string of questions which would eventually terminate in an answer like “because it’ll make me or someone else happy”.  For what purpose could I think about philosophy or computer science other than that I find them interesting?  Why do I drink and enjoy the company of friends other than that I find conversation and interaction stimulating?  If I work hard my entire to have a good job and get paid well, it can only be because I would prefer eating well to living in rags.  Ditto for whatever family I may eventually have.

I’m open to counterarguments on this point, but if anyone cares about something which doesn’t affect consciousness, I have yet to hear about it.

On the abortion debate, Bor writes:

The evidence is clear that a fetus can respond to sights, sounds, and smells, and it can even react to these by producing facial expressions. The evidence is equally clear, however, that these responses are generated by the most primitive parts of the brain, which are unconnected to consciousness, and therefore these actions don’t in any way imply that the fetus is aware.

What’s more,

In adult humans, for normal consciousness to occur, it is now generally agreed that two sets of regions need to be intact, functional, and able to communicate effectively with one another: the thalamus, a kind of relay station in the middle of the brain that connects many regions with many others; and the prefrontal parietal network, our most high-level, general purpose section of cortex.

and,

Only after about 29 weeks are the connections between these areas properly laid out, and it takes another month or so before the thalamus and the rest of the cortex are effectively communicating, as revealed by brain waves. So it’s highly unlikely that consciousness, at least in any form that we’d recognize as human awareness, arises before about 33 weeks into pregnancy.

On the basis of this information Bor is pro-choice, and I agree with his reasoning.  I wouldn’t support an abortion in the third trimester, but two weeks into pregnancy?  You’re talking about something that is hundreds of times less complicated than a tomato, not a human being.

As far as animal’s rights are concerned,

If no animals except humans have consciousness, there’s no problem, as suffering requires consciousness. But if even those animals classically assumed to have very limited mental faculties, such as poultry and fish, have a substantive awareness and significant capacity for suffering, then are we justified in inflicting all this pain and discomfort on them?

To be honest, I struggle with this one quite a bit.  I don’t see any reason to presume that animals aren’t conscious, though probably less conscious than I am.  Given this, I’m uncomfortable with how much animals must suffer to ensure that I have a steady supply of protein.  But, from the view point of my personal health, I don’t see vegetarianism as an alternative.  The vegetarians I know don’t seem to be particularly vital or energetic people, to say nothing of musculature or strength, and these things are important to me.  If there have been any studies done demonstrating the effectiveness of a vegetarian diet, I haven’t read them yet.

Now, I knew about the mirror test, in which animals are probed for their ability to recognize themselves in a mirror.  But I hadn’t heard of the experiments designed to test for “metacognition”, or thinking about thought, in animals:

Metacognition in other species is usually measured using a gambling task: An animal makes a decision about a stimulus and can then press either a high-risk button that promises a large food reward if the decision was correct but food restriction if it was wrong, or a low-risk button with a meager reward regardless of whether the animal is right or wrong. If the animal has significant metacognition—in other words, if it knows whether it is just guessing or if it has solid knowledge about a given stimulus—then it should usually press the high-risk button when it knows the correct answer and the low-risk one when it’s wrong.

It’ll come as no surprise that humans don’t have a monopoly on this talent.

Bor wraps his well-written and thought-provoking essay with a foray into some of the ethical dilemmas which will face the next generation of ethicists.  For example, can computers be conscious, and if they were, how could we tell?

All in all, a highly recommended read.

Sam Harris on Death, I.

(Rough) Outline

The reality of death and what it means (00:00 – 20:00)

What is now? (21:30 – 25:00)

Shifting perception and a small experiment (27:30 – 37:00)

Consciousness and experience (37:30 – 40:00)

Words of advice (40:15 – 45:00)

Summary

At the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne Australia, Sam Harris delivered a talk entitled “Death and the Present Moment“.  It was a departure from what I’ve come to expect from him, not because he was saying radically different things but because he went further than I’ve seen in elaborating his views of spirituality, consciousness, and philosophy.  There were hints of this in the closing chapters of the End of Faith, in his debate alongside Michael Shermer with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston,  and in his essays.  I hope that this is a taste of what we can expect in his forthcoming book.

I can only speculate, but it seems that Sam departs most noticeably from his fellow horseman in these matters.  Though I find much worth pondering in what the major atheist thinkers agree on, I’m at least as interested in what they disagree on, because there lies fertile ground for planting the seeds of a discourse on the future of non-belief.  This post is just a summary of the video; I will probably write a follow up post in the future with my opinion of his message.

The talk was long, but its basic points were these: we are terrified of death, and many people seek solace in religion.  At root, the battles fought over things like creationism and evolution reduce, on some level, to a fear of death.  Because people’s religious worldview often comes as a package, telling them that their belief in creationism is foolish is interpreted as telling them that their deceased daughter isn’t in heaven basking in the glow of Jesus.  If it’s true that believers see the advancement of science as an effort to pry consolation from their fingers in the wake of a tragedy, perhaps we can understand the tenacity with which they cling to their beliefs.

To make matters worse, atheism as a rejection of God has little to offer that compares with the solace provided by religion.  Whatever liabilities they may present, religious beliefs do the job of comforting the bereaved and suffering remarkably well.

The first step in navigating a path between the twin rocks of nihilism and absurdity is to remember that it’s always now.  This may sound obvious, but Sam asserts that there are ways of finding happiness and experiencing our lives as sacred now.  Our minds, and more specifically our conscious experience, are all we have and all we are and all we can offer.  Its true that the brain does much beneath the level of awareness to create our experience of the present, and the idea of “now” is problematic from the viewpoint of physics.  But the fact remains.  If there is an antidote to the terror inspired by the yawning abyss of death, it does not consist in learning new things; if there is a meaning of life, it is not to be found in endlessly checking things off our To-Do lists.  Too many of us, in a tragic inversion of the ancient proverb, live no day as if it were our last.  When the bad news comes that the end is upon us, we look back on our uses of time and attention and discover that the latest ipad didn’t hold the key to our fulfillment.

This does not mean our aspirations are unimportant, but does suggest that we need to learn to reorient towards life, to more fully experience the present moment.  This could involve either reframing how we interact with our own experience, or doing away with such frames altogether.

Surprisingly for an atheist, Sam claims that discursive thought is both extraordinarily useful and a primary source of suffering.  There is a ceaseless conversation going on inside our heads, giving birth to all manner of worry, anxiety, and fear, and our inability to disentangle ourselves from it and just be is problematic if we value sanity and happiness.  Techniques like meditation are one way of not drowning in the stream of consciousness.

A new conversation about death and the meaning of life needs to be had, and it is up to us to make the world a better place, starting from the piece of it between our own ears.