Friday, March 28, 2008

None of Us is Real

What can we really know about reality? Is it ever the case that we know any perfect truth about anything real? We are constantly revising our opinions of what is true. Our memories of experiences almost always include information that we did not actually see, hear, touch, smell, or feel. That is because human cognition depends on what some semanticists call frames. A frame is a knowledge structure that schematizes or idealizes experience. The vocabulary and expressions of our language tend to evoke frames by naming parts of them. Similarly, frames tend to shape the language we use by evoking other words associated with a frame.

One of the founders of frame semantics, Charles Fillmore, had a couple of stock sentences to illustrate the power of frames. Consider these two sentences:
1. John spent four hours on land.
2. John spent four hours on the ground.
The expressions "land" and "ground" mean roughly the same thing here, but they evoke different frames of reference. The first sentence suggests a maritime frame of reference, where "land" evokes the thought of being on water. The second sentence suggests a aerial frame of reference, where "ground" evokes the thought of being in the air. We build the meanings of words from references to schematized memories that contain a far more information than the mere words themselves convey. That is how human cognition works. It fills in details about our experiences that go beyond raw perceptions. Quite often, the details that schematized knowledge supply us with are wrong, so we are constantly updating our beliefs about what is true. The smartest among us are best at discarding expectations that prove false upon further scrutiny.

Another good example of frame-based thinking is to consider how we characterize people. Suppose that we witness an event where John considers buying something but refuses to pay because the price is too high for him. That objective event might be characterized in two different ways:
3. John was being thrifty.
4. John was being stingy.
There is no way to determine the absolute truth of those two sentences. They both tell us that John refused to spend money, but the frames associated with the words add different information. The "thrifty" frame characterizes John's act as a good thing in that he avoided unnecessary expense. The "stingy" frame characterizes John's act as a bad thing in that rejected a trivial expense that would have benefited someone else. So the use of those two words to characterize the same objective event tells you a lot more about the event (or the speaker's perception of it) than just the content of what John did. The vocabulary situates the event in a context.

Now, coming back to the epistemological question of how we come to know reality, we can understand why it is that nothing we believe is truly real. All knowledge exists relative to these internalized schemas that build a kind of virtual reality in our heads. We constantly test and revise those mental models, but we never actually get everything perfect. We are always gaining new experiences and trying to fit them into our mental models. We do this so unconsciously that we sometimes trick ourselves into believing that knowledge can be absolute and finite. There is an end to what we can discover if we can just stop having to revise our flawed expectations.

People are the most important things in our lives, and we ought to ask ourselves whether anybody is really real, even ourselves. Have you ever done anything that you didn't expect of yourself? Everyone does. We are constantly changing and updating our models of ourselves, not just others. The people that we know best are those whose behavior we can predict the best. But we can never predict anyone's behavior perfectly. To know someone well is just to have a very complex model of that person. But the amount of incorrect knowledge is greater for those we know best than for those we don't know very much at all, because there are more expectations that we can get wrong about our intimate acquaintances. In the end, none of us is real. We are only a collection of schemata living in a virtual reality of our own making.

No Racist is Perfect

We are all imperfect racists, although some of us are closer to perfection than others. Let's all just admit that nobody is really color blind when it comes to racial-ethnic-gender-religious stereotyping. It isn't that we want to judge individuals on the basis of the social categories they fall into, but our minds just seem built to make sweeping generalizations. And we just hate to admit it. It is politically incorrect to bring up such stereotyping. We feel uncomfortable when it happens, and we often condemn those who make us uncomfortable.

What is really wrong with racial stereotyping? We see what is wrong most clearly when the stereotype is a negative one: Women are prone to hysterical behavior. Blacks aren't intelligent. Asians can't drive. We don't see quite as much harm in positive stereotypes: Christians are more moral. Women are sensitive and sympathetic. Blacks are good athletes and musicians. Asians are better at math and science. What racism does is it blinds us to the reality of individual behavior. We see a black kid get a bad grade, and it confirms our expectations. We see an Asian kid get a bad grade, and it happens in spite of our expectations. Given the choice of which kid to tutor, we might prefer to pick the one that our stereotype tells us is more likely to succeed. Given a choice between a clumsy black and a clumsy Asian for the team, we might prefer to put more coaching effort into the black kid.

Our behavior is guided by our expectations. That is what is wrong with racial stereotyping. And we are all racists to the extent that we let our expectations be guided by such stereotyping. Nowhere is stereotyping more evident than in political races. In a very racially mixed state such as New York, it is not uncommon to treat certain political offices as belonging to people of one group or another. We call it "balancing the ticket", and we simply expect voters to support the candidate of their particular ethnic group. We marvel at the fact that a black man or a woman can even presume to run for the presidency. (Still no atheists for dogcatcher, though.)

Now let me turn to some thoughts on the Reverend Wright controversy. Never mind the fact that his career as a preacher has been reduced to a few seconds of angry hyperbole--probably among the worst things he has ever said in the midst of a rant from the pulpit. Never mind the fact that white Republicans and Democrats have solicited the support of racist, homophobic preachers and gotten a relative pass from the press. Barack Obama is the black presidential candidate who specializes in not being too black to attract white voters. Until Reverend Wright came along, it was nearly impossible to oppose Obama on racial grounds, although the press has endlessly asked the question of whether white voters were ready for a black president. But Wright handed people a handy excuse to comment on his race again. It wasn't that Obama was black, because very few people are going to admit to being prejudiced against blacks. But Wright makes a wonderful proxy argument. We don't expect blacks, the stereotypical victims of racism, to themselves be racist, and we don't forgive them as easily for lapses into racially-tinged rhetoric.

Is the hysteria over Wright only racism? Well, he did work himself up in one sermon (when Obama was not present) into damning America. But much has been made about his "Black Liberation" style of preaching, and that certainly calls up whatever racial divisions exist in our minds. The uproar got so bad that Barack Obama was forced to give one of the best speeches on race in America that anyone has heard in a long time. He passionately denounced Wright's words without denouncing Wright. Some think he was courageous to do that, and others think he was foolish. I think he was just trying desperately not to lose himself to the temptation of letting the quest for power corrupt him completely, a struggle that he may find harder and harder to win as time goes on. But the damage is already done. Wright will now become a safe way for people to publicly oppose Obama without publicly endorsing racism. It isn't perfect racism, but none of us are perfect racists.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why we have faith, and why we lose it

This is a little essay that I've published in some discussion forums, so I thought I would republish it here.

A question that fascinates many of us is why so many of us have religious faith and why some of us come to lose it. It is my opinion that theism--any belief in a god or gods--is driven by the utility of the belief or what it does for us. What needs does it fulfill? The answer to the question, then, is whether or not we think that the belief is doing its job properly.

As far as I can tell, belief in a god does two things. It explains things to us, and it empowers us. Belief in a god helps us to understand why we exist, how we got here, and why things are the way they are. But it may be even more important to us that gods make us stronger. They offer us a chance to achieve immortality (a central theme of the oldest religious epic, the Gilgamesh story). They perform miraculous cures and bring good weather. They take our side in wars, and they justify our violence against our enemies. It is no random fact that the German Wehrmacht had "Gott mit uns" (God with us) on their belt buckles. Most Christians believe that God supports their political goals and moral attitudes (although they tend to see it as themselves supporting God's political goals and moral attitudes). I cannot think of anything beyond these two purposes that a god may have, but I welcome suggestions. I see the companionship that people get from communication with God as a kind of empowerment, but maybe one could see that as a third reason to sustain belief.

When atheists argue with Christians, it seems that the debate centers primarily around how good a job God does at explaining things. That is why the debate over evolution is so important. Darwin's theory does much to undercut the need to explain biological (and physical) complexity as a divine artifact. Although most Christians have probably given up a literal belief in the Genesis story of creationism, God still seems to explain the mystery of the origin of the universe and the principal reason why evolution seems to have worked to create human beings. God simply guided evolution in their minds. But is God's explanatory value more important than his ability to empower us? I think not.

Most 18th and 19th century religious skeptics in the West tended to be deists, not pure atheists, but Darwinism helped to change that demographic--to create what Dawkins has called the "intellectually fulfilled atheist". In reading biographies of such religious skeptics as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain (both probably deists) and Charles Darwin (a confirmed atheist), I have been struck by the fact that the tipping point from faith to lack of faith in their lives came after the deaths of loved ones. God failed to be there when they needed him. Before that point, they questioned the usefulness of God in explaining reality, but they could buy the fact that he might have played some role in setting things up. It was the utter failure of their God to prevent horror and tragedy that drove them away from religion.

Darwin was a particularly interesting case, because he claimed not to have really embraced atheism until around the age of 40 (from David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin). That was after his father's death and shortly before the tragic death of his treasured young daughter. Lincoln's and Twain's lack of faith hardened similarly after the loss of children. It is ironic, because people of faith quite often find themselves becoming more religious after such tragedies, not less. The experience of tragedy is like a wedge in that it drives people who possess and lack faith further away from each other. After the 9/11 tragedy, the churches in the US filled up, but so did the number of people asking (or explaining) why God had abandoned us.

So I want to end this little essay by saying how I think it affects the debate between theists and atheists. If one is trying to develop a persuasive case for or against belief in a god, the more important of God's two functions--explanation and empowerment--is empowerment. The feeling that God doesn't explain things well may weaken faith, but it is the realization that he fails to help us that makes a real difference in the end. We have to look elsewhere for the strength to get through life's worst tragedies, and that is something which many (perhaps most) of us find too horrible to contemplate.