Sunday, December 31, 2006

Maybe next year?

Outside I can hear the fireworks going off. My wife and daughter are playing in the next room. In many ways I should be grateful for what 2006 has been like for my family. My brother has got engaged and is moving back to live not far from me. My daughter is growing well and is happy and a joy to be around. I have had a few small successes in my work and a big one appears to be about to finally materialise with the post-doc decision being due any day. Yet, I would be foolish not to recognise that this happy version of 2006 was very far from the case for most people. So, in these last few hours of the year, I allow myself the faint hope that 2007 will be a better year for most. I know, at least, that Romania and Bulgaria are counting down the hours to their entry into the EU. Congratulations to them. They certainly can expect mostly positive changes in the next while.

What was the point of that?

The Americans decided that a good way to celebrate the end of the year and the Hajj would be to hang a dictator. Just like those bound for the pyre during the witch burning days, Saddam was handed over to a different set of authorities – the Iraqis – who then hanged him within a few short hours. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and a handy phone-camera, the video of his execution is available on the net, including the mainly religious shouts that accompanied it, both from Saddam and the gathered on-lookers. Someone shouts “You’re going to hell while we are going to heaven.”
I can not help but think just how utterly pointless Hussein’s execution was by the time it occurred. Certainly, in so far as anyone could have deserved capital punishment, Saddam’s past justified the punishment many times over. However, by the time the once-powerful dictator walks to the gallows he has already become quite powerless to cause any more death, a cipher in the hands of his captors. So, his treatment speaks nothing about what he was and everything about what those who executed him are. And, quite frankly, I do not believe that it is possible for a civilised nation to accept capital punishment under any circumstances. A prisoner is no longer a danger to anyone, no longer capable of causing harm that would justify the use of violence in order to prevent it. Saddam’s death will do nothing to make other would-be dictators think twice about killing their own people – only about invading Kuwait or doing something else that the Americans might dislike – the last service Saddam could give to those he’d once served. At the same time, the only instincts his death will serve are base – a call for blood to pay for the blood of others. Just the sort of reptilian brain thought that Iraq definitely does not need now – a time when Iraqis are being tortured and killed in greater numbers than during Saddam’s reign.

Who could dislike Christmas?

Bah, humbug. I have to say, I still don’t like Christmas. This year was basically no different, until at least I heard some particularly good news. But I’ll get to that later.
It is something of a cliché to mention that Christmas holidays mean having to put up with annoying relatives. But the thing about clichés is that they are clichés for some good reason – very often this being that they are true! Certainly, I am not one to disagree. In my particular case, the Holidays seem to be the perfect time to have relatives show how unaware of anything around them they are. For example, the relative (yes, my mother-in-law) who thought it would be nice to teach my two-year-old daughter to say the Lord’s Prayer and get her to recite it at the Christmas table. After all, how could anyone have anything against that? Anyone like her atheist father, for example! My wife and I had a long talk about that afterwards and she seemed to understand where I was generally coming from. Only generally, though. For her, living in a country where almost everyone espouses Catholicism, it is hard to imagine what it feels like a minority. What is worse, a minority within one’s own family. So, it was very good to see my wife cut her mother off the next day when she tried to repeat the performance. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law’s gaffe was not the only one for this holiday period.
At the same time, having my brother around is really great. I find that there is no-one I rather talk to about things that are happening in my life than him. And much the same seems to be true in his case. Given how little of our adult lives we’ve spent in the same time zone, the news he gave us during the Christmas dinner was particularly pleasing. The news was actually given by his girlfriend who, after informing us that they had something to tell us, just showed us the (unusually nice) diamond ring. The rest of the evening I smiled like an idiot. The fiancée is great and I think that the two of them will be able to make it work. The wedding is to be some time next year and is going to be a somewhat odd experience for me, given that it will be something like twenty years (and twenty kilos) ago that I attended my brother’s first (and thus far only) wedding. Although I haven’t talked him about it, I assume that this means that my brother is now thinking of coming to live here permanently. All of which makes for an outcome that no-one could have expected – he’d never been interested in coming back on a permanent basis or in getting married again.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Anything else?

While mentioning scientific work on religion I should mention something that is available on the net and which is truly mind-blowing. is a very cool site which has lots of interesting articles and, most recently, has material on a conference called “Beyond Belief” which took place in November at the Salk Institute in California and at which some of the current scientific greats discussed religious faith. Dawkins was one of those present and, best of all, video of the full conference is available for download so that it is possible to sit down at home and to watch the whole discussion. What was quite good was to see both what was said as well as what was not said – it was certainly a pity that Dennett was not there due to having had to undergo emergency heart surgery only a few days before the conference as he would have helped to direct the conference away from less fruitful topics. One person who seemed more keen on arguing rather than developing an interesting exchange of ideas was Sam Harris. I had to agree with those who felt that Harris’ view of terrorism as primarily religious in basis is too simplistic – his failure to properly examine the political reasons for terrorism was made quite clear by a couple of the other participants. It was good, on the other hand, that a few religious people were present at the conference making it necessary for the atheists to be more careful with their assessments – without a critical response opinions tend to become oversimplified – much as biological features tend to atrophy when no longer functional. I found it very interesting to finally see many people who were previously only known to me through their books and also found out about a number of writers whose books I should make sure to read in the future. In all, for those, like me, interested in such issues, this is a great way to blow a day or two. I suspect that I will be coming back to this video as well as the Dennett book.

Another thing in my life recently has been my brother, who had lived on the other side of the globe. He arrived in Europe a couple of months ago and now looks to be moving here on a more permanent basis, only spending a few months each year in the balmy South Pacific (probably the northern winter months, at that). He and I have lived in different countries for many, many years now but have remained quite close none-the-less, so having him here is something of a luxury. I find it a great comfort to be able to talk to him about things that I did not really have anyone to talk to till he arrived and, I can see, that he feels similarly. What is interesting is that he came here without any clear intentions and much to tie him to anywhere but, within a relatively short time, found a woman that he is now thinking about quite seriously – which is one of the reasons for his decision to spend most of his time here.

While all this is happening, the local politics is becoming more and more insane, with the ruling coalition made up of nationalists, pseudo-fascists and populists doing everything they can to undermine the nation’s economy, society, international standing and political culture. They are indeed most suitable for the role of Dubya’s mongrel brood – not quite as intelligent or as subtle as their master but doing their best to make up for their numerous shortcomings by sheer enthusiasm. And the amazing thing is that despite everything they have done, their numbers are refusing to fall much below what they were at the last national elections. Of course, much the same thing happened to Bush, but the US had been suffering from paranoia brought on by the spectacular attack on the World Trade Centre, while the only terrorists here have been purely the invention of some of the less intellectually and ethically developed members of the populist party (something of an achievement in itself).

In short, there has been plenty happening in the last few months.

Read any good books lately?

I have been reading a lot recently. In particular, I have just finished reading both Richard Dawkins’ and Dan Dennett’s latest books, both on religion. It was very good to read the two of them together as it made very clear to me the different between the approaches taken by them. So, while I thought that The God Delusion was a very competently written book, most of which I heartily agreed with I also found that Dawkins said very little that was genuinely new. Books like his have been written for centuries now and have had only a limited effect. I can, for example, think back to Russell’s Why I am not a Christian which I had read when I was about eighteen and which was useful at that stage of my life in so far as it showed me that others were thinking along the same lines as I was. So, I am far from saying, like some other atheists, that Dawkins should not have written that book. Still, I think that it is Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that is truly revolutionary. Rather than arguing against religious belief, Dennett proposes to study it, just as you would study any other natural phenomenon. In the long term, I think hat it is this proposal that will be far more damaging to religious organisations as it will lead to their actual emotional and intellectual foundations to the light of science, rather than allowing the debate to remain on the largely pointless discussion of the finer epicycles of the theological defences that have been built up over the centuries against philosophical arguments showing the inherent nonsensicality of religious faith. As Dennett states, he spends no time on theological arguments for the simple reason that neither do most of those who believe – the foundations of their faith lying elsewhere. By moving the discussion to that area and rendering it clearly in scientific terms, Dennett may end up dealing theism a very serious blow indeed.

At it was, I only read Dennett’s bok after having handed in my post-doc proposal but I find that his approach to religion is pretty much what I should like to do with superstition – my reason for concentrating upon superstition being that it seems to me to be a much simpler phenomenon than religion (though that does not make it simple). Dennett has actually set up a research group to investigate religion in the kind of way he proposes in his book. Scientific board willing, I hope to contact that group to see what avenues they are pursuing and to what degree their work is going to be relevant to what I do.

What about the little one?

Well, my girl is no longer as little as she used to be. In fact, she is in the top few percentiles for her age group when it comes to height. I guess that she probably gets that from me – I have never tended towards the short or, indeed, the weedy. She had her second birthday only a couple of months ago but is now impossible to shut up. Some of her texts are classics. For example – “I do not agree with these ideas!” or “I can’t take it anymore!” Yes, she does tend to have a very clear idea of what she wants and is quite capable of expressing it in no uncertain terms. That she gets from her mother, I suspect. She doesn’t say much in English but he does understand everything I say and is starting to distinguish that there are two different languages. So, a few weeks ago when I told her something, her grandmother said that she did not understand and my little one said, “That’s OK, I’ll explain,” and then translated what I had said in English to her.

Sometimes when she starts just repeating adult phrases, her tone serious and insistent, and it makes absolutely no sense I can’t help but feel that the situation can’t be all that different when we use those same phrases – “all sound and fury…”

The question of how she is going to be brought up is becoming more of an issue. A couple of times I have heard her saying things that show that my mother-in-law is teaching her all sorts of religious nonsense while she is at her house. This will only become more important as she gets older so I will have to think about how I want to react to such things and will have to discuss these things with my wife. Of course, my wife does not see why it would be a problem for me, even though she can not help but have noticed by now that it is a problem. My daughter isn’t going to kindergarten yet but last night we went to a kindergarten run by a friend of my wife’s family for my little one to see Santa Claus who had come to hand out presents to the kids there (my daughter got a little bag of goodies but almost lost it in the excitement of all the things that were going on). What freaked me out was seeing a priest there, in among the three- and four-year olds. When we came home my wife and I talked about how I really object to that kind of thing, seeing it as indoctrination of the very young. I tried to explain it to her by giving her analogous examples to think about – such as her turning up at a kindergarten only to find an imam or a communist party representative there to indoctrinate the children.

What’s the post-doc about?

It so happens that my post-doc, assuming it happens, will have quite a bit to do with this blog. It will not be concerned with religion but it will mean that I spend time looking at something that is to some degree related to religion and which I have mentioned numerous times on this blog, i.e. superstition. The persistent survival of superstition is something that, once you look at it, is quite hard to explain. Science has been the norm for rationality for a couple of hundred years by now and yet superstition is still pretty much ubiquitous in even the most enlightened societies. And, if that were not enough, it is something of an enigma how superstition appeared in the first place given that human beings, including their minds, are the result of evolutionary processes that, it would seem, should get rid of what appears to be a maladaptation.

Clearly, for superstition to be as persistent as it is, it is probably fairly deeply tied in with some core aspects of human nature. As such, the evolutionary level appears to be the right place to look for at least part of the explanation. The thing about evolutionary development, however, is that it is highly opportunistic, complexly interrelated and that it proceeds only step by step. Thus, an organism’s developmental pathways and behaviour might tightly constrain the mutations that could be successfully propagated leading to a Byzantine end result where a much simpler design would seem to be preferred. A good example of this is the back-end-forward placement of the light-sensitive cells in the eye, with the sensing layer buried beneath the tangle of optic nerves instead of lying on top of them, thus avoiding the need for a blind spot where the nerves leave the eye. In the case of superstition the point is that the complexity of evolution leaves plenty of odd loop-holes which are quite capable of explaining why superstition should persist, indeed why it might be very difficult to get rid of.

One such possibility, the one that I will be investigating, is that superstition is a by-product. In other words, that while it, itself, was not selected for by evolution, it is in some way produced by something which was selected for. In particular, I suspect that superstition is a necessary by-product of rationality. This may seem like a highly counterintuitive idea at first since rationality and superstition are most often seen s mirror opposites but, that, I believe only shows that the notion of rationality with which we work is false. Being able to understand superstition as a by-product would, in effect, be evidence for that claim. So, the work on superstition is a continuation of the work I have been doing on understanding rationality as a natural phenomenon. Of course, saying that the notion of rationality which is customary is inadequate does not constitute a theory of rationality. So, while developing some of my own ideas I will be turning to the work of others whose accounts of rationality are more capable of accommodating superstition as a fairly universal human characteristic while not denying that humans are rational beings. One such idea is that of bounded rationality developed first by Herbert Simon. This approach toward rationality has been developed further by Gerd Gigerenzer in the context of his work of understanding how humans reason using simple but effective heuristics. His work on heuristics, on the other hand, is based on the work by Kahnemann and Tversky. Gigerenzer, however, unlike Kahnemann/Tversky and many others, does not draw the negative conclusions drawn by them regarding human abilities but, instead, shows how effective they are under normal conditions.

In effect, Gigerenzer’s work provides me with one possible framework to understand superstition within and it will be my aim to first see to what degree superstition can be fitted into this framework as arising in those circumstances in which some of our heuristics fail in some way. What worries me is that to be able to investigate some of the aspects of this I might have to think about empirical work. The problem is that I do not have a background in empirical work so, if this becomes necessary, will have to seek out quite a lot of help in terms of the practical methodology. Still, I find myself quite keen on the idea of getting to see first hand what scientific methodology looks like, having talked about it for years.

I am still not at all sure how much time I will spend on applying Gigerenzer’s work to these problems and what other possible ideas I will pursue in order to understand superstition. This meant that my application was somewhat vague on the methodology I would pursue. In particular, I think I will have to spend the first few months looking through previous work, starting with Skinner’s work on pigeons, just to familiarise myself properly with the area. Unfortunately, ‘read a lot of articles’ does not sound like much of a methodology in the proposal and this is my main worry regarding how my proposal goes when the scientific board gets to finally look at it in the next few weeks.

What has been happening?

In Tolkien’s books there is a word that I am quite fond of – mathom. A mathom is a thing that one has no use for right now but might be useful in the future so you do not throw it away. Indeed, according to Tolkien, the hobbits have a whole special mathom-house in which they keep the mathoms that they do not have the space for in their homes. I mention the word because I find a vaguely similar tendency recurring in my life.

I tend to like to get involved in lots of different things and so end up doing more than I can cope with. The way I find I deal with this is that every so often I cut back quite a lot on my commitments only to then gradually reintroduce the ones that I decide were the most important or interesting. Usually such a ‘spring cleaning’ is brought about by some major changes in my life, such as starting a new job or moving. Indeed, the last few months have been a period of re-evaluation and re-engagement for me. The particular reason for this change has been that I have applied for a post-doc position which, if I end up getting it, will entail either moving or commuting across borders. I have spent the last few months waiting for official word but will not know for sure that I’ve got it till early next year. In the meanwhile I have been changing things in life. One of the effects of this has been that I have not posted anything to the blog despite the great number of blogworthy things that have happened.