progressive enlightenment versus dogma, lake boat wallpaper, barbara stanwyck

There were some very acute observations in that article by Stephen Cave (Economists have more to learn from the natural sciences if they are to claim a realistic model of human behaviour). I covered some of the material about economics and human behavior in this post. In addition to Robert Trivers’ Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others he also delves into some of Dean Buonomano’s neuroscience based perspective on irrational behavior, Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives

Buonomano’s book Brain Bugs begins on more solid ground – the recent insights of neuroscience. His aim is to show how the specific structures of our brain have evolved over millennia in ways that have ill-prepared us for “the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special-effects-filled, antibiotic-laden, media-saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves”. And he begins well, with a fascinating account of the way memories are made, and how these particularities frequently lead us into error. As he makes clear, this has real world impact, from forgetting your phone number to identifying the wrong person in a police line-up to developing entirely false memories of parental abuse.

But where it leaves neuroscience for broader speculation, Brain Bugs is derivative or superficial. Like Trivers, Buonomano is at his weakest when theorising about what “brain bugs” lie behind religion. His astonishingly naive answer (that religion partitions off unanswerable questions so we can get on with the real work) only demonstrates that many scientists cannot resist using their pet theories to have a dig at the irrationality of spiritual belief, yet do so with a laziness that discredits the discipline whose very superiority they are advocating.

But Buonomano is spot-on when he applies his understanding of the brain’s inherent blips to the potential of Nudge theory. Generally, he welcomes the recognition of behavioural economics that we are frequently far from rational. Yet nudging, he argues, is “ultimately limited in reach … the effects are often relatively small, helping some people, but far from all, improve their decision”.

Buonomano, among others think we’re far less individualistic than we, especially in the U.S. We do and think much like our parents, either for better or worse we move on to doing or thinking like our friends, and finally many people go in for borderline idolatry of whoever – George Bush, Steve Jobs, Joe Paterno – generally people who have some kind of financial well being, the details about how or whether it was earned just so much piffling details. This last phase relives practitioners of doing too much thinking for themselves. It forms a nice narrative box into which everyone outside “doesn’t get it.” Don’t have a job? You’re obviously lazy, there is absolutely nothing keeping you from being a billionaire CEO. All the complex externalities of life – luck, genes, parents, economic status, educational opportunities, war, poverty, street crime, white collar crime, living in a flood plain, physical stature, eye color, ethnocentrism, gender – hey they do not affect you, you live in a bubble of your own making.

In what seems like a reactionary turn Cave’s comment about Buonomano’s of religion ( in this case what we think of as organized and dogmatic religion as opposed to some personal spiritual beliefs) Cave, otherwise rational and even humorous up to that point suddenly pulls a David Brooks. Cave’s sudden loss of lucidity mid essay is somewhat common among U.K. intellectuals. Brooks is probably the best known proponent of such thinking in the U.S. – for a good take on the convoluted lengths to which Brooks gets economics, culture and science twisted up into one big ball of wrong see Why David Brooks Gets the Meaning of Life Wrong and David Brooks’ dream world for the trust-fund set. Cave’s assertion that science is lazy or that proponents of a rationalistic approach to problem solving is what’s absurd. There is nothing lazier than using religion as a guide for life. By definition you never have to prove anything – and Martin Luther did away with the requirement to do good works. Whether it is Ganesha, Johovah, Allah, Siddhartha Gautama, Joseph Smith, Jr.(Mormon prophet), L. Ron Hubbard or the Virgin Mary it is all dogma and faith. Religion itself is responsible for very little in the way of progress – it has often been pulled kicking and screaming to the light by the shame of its history. Galileo stayed a Catholic after his persecution, but it was his insistence on rational empirical knowledge trumping literal interpretation of a fable that lead to mankind’s understanding of the heavens. Cave reminds me a a U.K. philosopher named John Gray. To call Gray a philosopher is generous. He rejects the concept of fact based inquiry, modern logic and while he is a writer he also rejects the established meanings of words. Gray once wrote against rationalism and science,

The history of the last century is testimony to the destructive power of rationalism, not fideism. Nazism and Communism were at one in their hatred of religion. Both claimed to be founded in science—“dialectical materialism” and “scientific racism.” Of course these sciences were bogus, but they show what horrors can be justified by appeal to reason. The worst acts of the twentieth century were committed by atheist regimes that claimed a scientific basis for their policies.

. How convenient to simply start defining trees as stones to prove your point about how hard trees are. Stalin warped science for his benefit. Hitler did the same. Science and enlightened thought were not the problem, individual fanatics and the people who followed them were the problem. Followers who had faith in their leaders and discarded rational humanistic thinking. Science itself does not give speeches, use propaganda, lock people up in camps, or commit murder. People do that, and for centuries up to the present religion still murders people, starves people, tramples over other religions in the eons long fight for supremacy. All based on what? Not any empirical evidence that we can repeat like a physic experiment. While it is mistaken to say that no good has ever come of religion it is also deeply wrong to deny that religion is not responsible for much of the evil perpetrated by humanity against itself. How Gray, Cave or Brooks can piece together this crazy quilt with a sprinkle of modernity there and a splash of utter irrationality, is an example of how deeply ingrained self-deception can be. Philosopher A. C. Grayling has been a long time adversary of Grays’. In this review he notes Gray’s tendency to make up new meanings for words, new histories and garbled interpretations as need be to fit his agenda, Through the looking glass

Actually one must suppose that there are further points than mere iteration of pessimism and negativism, which is Gray’s preferred (see Straw Dogs) and here iterated pose. The chief of them is that he is against the progressivist ambitions of the secular Enlightenment, and he hopes to annoy its proponents by giving it Christianity for a father and – that weary old canard – Nazism and Stalinism for offspring. His case for this is so massively wrong in its premises and so contradictory in its details that, alas, I should need as much paper to correct the mistakes as he consumes in making them. So what follows goes to certain main points only.

In order to establish that secular Whiggish Enlightenment-derived aspirations are the child of Christianity, Gray begins by calling any view or outlook a “religion”. Everything is a religion: Torquemada’s Catholicism, the pluralism and empiricism of 18th-century philosophers, liberalism, Stalinism. He speaks of “secular religion” and “political religion”. This empties the word “religion” of any meaning, making it a neutral portmanteau expression like “view” or “outlook”. He can therefore premise a gigantic fallacy of equivocation, and assimilate secular Enlightenment values to the Christian “narrative” of reformation aimed at bringing about a golden age.

For starters this misreads Christianity, for which truths are eternal and the narrative is a very short story indeed (obey, get to heaven; disobey, do not get to heaven); but more to the point, it utterly misreads the secular view. The secular view is a true narrative of incremental improvement in the human condition through education and political action. Gray thinks that such a view must of necessity be utopian, as if everyone simplistically thought that making things better (in dentistry, in the rule of law, in child health, in international mechanisms for reducing conflict, and so forth for many things) absolutely had to be aimed at realising an ideal golden age to have any meaning. But it does not: trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. That is a point Gray completely fails to grasp, and it vitiates his case. Since that is so, the point bears repeating: meliorism is not perfectibilism.

The David Brooks comparison may not go far enough. In the U.S. it is difficult to choose who mangles meanings and history as badly as Gray and with such arrogant insistence. Glenn Beck comes to mind. His assertion that progressives are the political heirs of Nazism is so wrong that noting the jaw dropping malicious stupidity does not begin to describe the inaccuracy.

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

clouds and boat on a lake wallpaper

barbara stanwyck as a Ziegfeld girl c1924. If her birth date on Wikipedia is correct she would have still been in her teens. I was looking through my old photos collection when I came across this one. That reminded me of this recent post from MF – Barbara Stanwyck 

Yet by 1944 the IRS named Barbara Stanwyck the highest-paid woman in America. From 1930-57, she did a minimum of two pictures a year, sometimes even four or five.

She made lots of movies so to pick a few to recommend is difficult. Her acting style and thus many of the movies she made endure because her technique was so modern. She was particularly good in The Lady Eve (1941), Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).