Friday, September 26, 2008

Just The Facts

When I look out my window, I see Puget Sound. Looking up, I see a gray and spongy sky. To my left is an enormous maple tree, its leaves portending the arrival of fall; to my right, a grand (if a little wind-beaten) cedar. I believe with certainty mitigated only by metaphysics, that were you to drop by, you'd see the same things.

It is with exactly the same certainty that I recognize Sarah Palin as surpassingly unqualified to be a national leader. It is no less clear to me that John McCain's latest look-at-me-I'm-a-hero stunt was pure politics; theater of the absurd; designed to deflect and distract. So it's nearly beyond comprehension that some see those facts differently. (I'd allow a little more slack on the McCain maneuver, because the situation is so complex and fraught. Still, it seems there was near agreement that agreement was near; then he buzzed in and things fell apart. And the preceding link is from a very conservative guy.)

So I come back to science (funny thing: I started this blog to save myself from polluting my medical one, but it seems there really is overlap!): studies showing differences between the actual makeup of liberals and conservatives. Our brains are different. And we react differently to facts.

Fascinating this may be, but it bodes ill.

In the founding days of this country, it was all upside. Prodigious and profoundly intellectual arguments took place in shaping The Constitution, and workable compromises were found. But somehow, as great and nearly inexplicably brilliant as those people were, I see it as less difficult than what's being faced today. The founders were farmers, basically, starting with nothing. It was all ahead of them, and there'd be time for correction, fine-tuning, making it up as they went along; based on thoughtful consideration of what had preceded them, they had clay in their hands. Lives were at stake, all right, but not the very survival of the planet. Were they to fail, they'd not have humanity on their hands.

Not so, today.

First of all, our politicians are nearly universally idiots. They are, in fact, chosen precisely for that quality, most especially those in the House of Representatives. Districts have been so gerrymandered that only the most partisan of either party will be elected. To the extent that there are people of wisdom in the capitol, they are mostly in the Senate, where such partisan hackery is less built-in. But, of course, there are conservatives and liberals; which means there are evidently fundamentally different ways of looking at data. Nor is it limited to Washington.

People who seem able, implicitly at least, to accept the physics behind nuclear power, reject the same math when it comes to the age of the Earth. Some think it literally true that a guy lived inside a fish for several days. Others are willing -- happy -- to kill themselves just for the pleasure of knowing they've killed others with whose beliefs they disagree. Nasty people take to the airwaves, spewing hatred and bigotry, claiming as fact things easily -- and already -- disproved. Listeners tune in and vibrate with pleasure, endorphins flowing from their grateful brains. Discourse, of the sort seen in Philadelphia centuries ago, is replaced by stunts, self-interest, and deceit. While the future of this country and the world breathtakingly teeter -- the economy, deficits, pollution, war, nuclear holocaust, climate change -- our leaders stake out diametric positions, sure of their own rightness, unwilling to compromise. And we cheer them on. The filthier, the more off-topic, the more dismissive and hate-filled, the better. The fewer the facts, the happier it makes (some of) us.*

I don't deny that, were anyone listening, I'd be fanning the fire much of the time. And the reason is simple: I look at what's going on and see fact as surely as I see out my window. John McCain is a self-aggrandizing and dangerously impulsive drama queen who needs (my explanatory theory may be upcoming) to be the center of attention and who is incapable of deep thought. His choice of Sarah Palin and his sudden crisis-mode (and quickly reversed) "campaign suspension" that never happened and vacuous meddling in D.C. are merely the most recent data points from which the conclusion is to be drawn. I can understand disagreements on the role of government, on entitlements, the war(s); I have misgivings about taxes and spending on both sides. But on McCain, and Palin, I simply can't fathom disagreement. It's just the facts, for all to see.

*Amazing. As if to underline the central thesis of this post, McCain already has ads up announcing he won the debate, before the debate has occurred! Laugh, cry? Tell me: I'll do it.


  1. Holy sweet Jesus, are you ever prolific!

  2. And it is most interesting...that as plainly as you can see that BEAUTIFUL view and your trees and are as certain about your political perception...there are others who could use your same analogy and are as equally convinced that the conservative view is the most accurate, that the FACTS have been distorted.

    I think it has to be this way for aggravating as it is.

    And I do think the BS name calling and disgusting and vile comments are totally off base..which "mainly" comes from the not so bright entertainers/Hollywood and extreme liberal journalists.

    It may satisfy their frustrations and appeal to a certain base...but they will never have credibility with me. And when people do this...they cloud the issues...if they can actually even speak to the important issues.

    McPalin's got MY vote because ...she wears dangling earrings and so is a girl after my own heart. ;)

  3. Oh..I DO love your eloquent...and I can't wait until you come back to Surgeon'sblog!

  4. I'm looking forward to some gross and fine oratorical dissection by Dr. Obama tonight on the zombie McCain, whose purple Allow Natural Death wristband is sparkling in full view.

    Do you participate in a local skeptics society? It might serve as a support group. *grin*

    I found some new treasures this week. Link at my name will take you to them.

  5. Join the revolution, mate!

    "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." -- H. L. Mencken

  6. seaspray: there's so much with which to disagree that I'll leave it at this: ever hear of Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingrahm, Ann Coulter? There's no one on the left that comes anywhere close to their vileness. Not close by any measure.

    annie: I think Obama's skills are great. But I also expected Al Gore to take apart Bush, and he failed to do so. My wife says she can't bear to watch. I will, but I'll be holding my breath. The handicap Obama has is that he's never been able to lie so unabashedly as McCain; to criticize others for doing exactly what he's been doing and they have not. It's a flaw in liberalism: awareness of self, having lines beyond which they won't cross. Not a flaw, so much as a disadvantage in politics.

  7. Man, I disappear from the comment circuit for a couple of weeks, and my favorite bloggers all go through some kind of dimensional warp and show up somewhere else! Good to see you back, Dr. Schwab.

    I am avoiding the debate in real time. I'll TiVo it and watch it tomorrow when it won't angry up my blood and keep me from falling asleep.

  8. GDad: nice to hear from you. I'm watching it, but, obviously, not too closely. So far I haven't heard anything new, nor anything that'd change any minds from previously held positions.

  9. You seem to think idiocy, hypocrisy, lying, etc. are bad things, and yet you want to say it's all just genetics. If it's just brain wiring, then how can it be "wrong"? It's just "different", isn't it? How can people be held morally accountable for something that's simple chemistry? Chemistry isn't "good" or "bad", it's just kind of there.

  10. Sorry, that last comment was mine; didn't mean to be anonymous. :) We corresponded briefly last spring after some interaction re Dr. Alice's (Cut On the Dotted Line) creationism comments.

  11. Wes: either I didn't make my point well, or you missed it. It's that, if we are wired to see things differently, it bodes ill for solving things, especially as difficult as they now are. People at the poles are equally certain of their correctness.

    I think it's implicit in what I wrote that I recognize I'm as wired-in as those who disagree with me. I did link to a study that said conservatives are more refractory to input than liberals, so yeah, I think they're wronger than I am.

  12. Wes: either I didn't make my point well, or you missed it. It's that, if we are wired to see things differently, it bodes ill for solving things, especially as difficult as they now are. People at the poles are equally certain of their correctness.
    Sid, thanks for the response. By the way, I loved your restrained description of the beauty of the trees.

    My mistake -- I missed your point. But I still think there's a problem. If all is just genetics -- chemical wiring -- then yes, we're in a world o' hurt in terms of hope for resolving conflict. I don't think it *is* just wiring, but I don't see how you can think it's anything *but*, given your atheist and evolutionary assumptions. And given those assumptions, how can you consistently believe conservatives are "wronger" than you -- in other words, where does the higher standard of wrong and right come from, if all is just genetic wiring and there is no metaphysical, absolute, unchanging yardstick? "Wronger" by what standard? Isn't is just your personal preference?

  13. Wes: I think it's easier to think of free will and thought from evolutionary point of view than from the Christian view of an all knowing and all powerful god. But that's not the point, either. Nor, I assume, are you trying to raise that old trope that only through religious belief can one have a moral code...

    I try to base my positions on facts. One of the articles to which I linked suggests the opposite is true of conservatives. If that's the case, then it's pretty easy to argue who's more likely to be right.

    I think there are universal truths and moral values: telling the truth, being kind to one's fellow man. Empathy. Helping those less fortunate. Avoiding harm to others. All of these, of course, have evolutionary benefit as well. So yeah. I think I'm justified in making value judgments. That people are wired to think differently from one another doesn't change the fact that there is right and wrong, whether you couch it in Biblical law or common sense.

  14. Sid, if there is nothing metaphysical about the cosmos and everything is just matter, then I don't see how you can consistently believe in free will and responsible thought at *all*. What we call our thoughts and our wills are nothing more than chemical reactions and physical processes and therefore are not free at all; they are determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. A strictly materialist view of the cosmos can only logically result in a sheerly deterministic view of man's will. I don't think *you* hold a determinist view, but I think your belief in free will is illogical, because it's inconsistent with your materialist view of the universe. To be consistent, one of them would have to go.

    The same is true of morality. No, I don't believe that only through religious belief can one have a moral code, because that's obviously not true -- you clearly do hold to universal truths and moral values. The issue is that you (unlike the Christian) cannot logically *account* for holding them. You say your belief in universal truth and morality is justified but you haven't explained how. Where do unchanging universal truths come from if everything is just matter and change over time? If truth is just the result of evolution and human consensus, truth by majority vote, then a great many things both of us hate would have to be accepted as "moral" (unless you're willing to assert that the majority of mankind is sensible, moral, thoughtful, honest, peaceful, sexually restrained, etc.).

    Furthermore, if truth and morality is the result of evolution (and by definition always changing, then there's no reason to think your values are "universal" and unchanging. Why should we think the evolutionary process has stopped with us at this point in time? If humans develop the idea in 10,000 years that rape, pedophilia, murder, torture, and slavery are genuinely good, then on what objective basis could you say it's "wrong" and not just something you personally don't like?

  15. Wes: I don't think we know what thought is, or to what extent our brains are the sumtotal of all input. I did speculate about it once on my other blog. Your premise may or may not be true. And irrelevant to this extent: whatever thought is, it's nonetheless evident that it's possible to feel good, and to feel bad. It's possible to harm others, or to help them. We feel to some extent in control of those options. Whether we're all just ping-ponging or not, we believe we act on our own volition. So. I see, in that context, as truth that it's better to feel good than bad, and to avoid making others feel bad. It's better to work with fellow humans than against them... Etc etc etc....

    Those conclusions don't involve god. Morality is available to us all. If god is involved, then either he's pulling all strings, or none. Because if he does it sometimes, then he's decided whether or not to in all cases. So he's pulling the strings, or we're in a terrarium he made in science class.

    Here we are, now. If we were to evolve further, I'd assume it would be toward more ability to live morally; in that we have a long way to go. One can hope.

    Last word to you.

  16. Sid, you gave me the last word the last time around, and since I would happy to hear your response to my final comments below, I'll let you have it instead. It's your blog and your treat your guests well, so the least we can do is return the favor now and then.

    It's not my premise that our thoughts are nothing but chemistry and physics. I meant that in your worldview that's all they can logically be, and if so then they are determined, not free. So to the extent that you feel yourself to be free and responsible, you are merely deluded by some fluke of chemistry and radically inconsistent with your own premise about the nature of the universe. Of course everyone prefers pleasure to pain, but what if the pain of others gives me pleasure? If you're right about the universe, then your belief that *not* harming others is good is merely your opinion -- given your worldview, how can you privilege that over someone else who believes that harming others brutally is ok so long as it profits him and gives him pleasure?

    Again, I know you do believe in morality but you still cannot logically account for that belief except by saying our sense of morality has evolutionary benefit. But so do a great many things we'd consider dreadfully immoral, and many "moral" actions are not evolutionarily beneficial at all. And if your idea of morality is "whatever is evolutionarily beneficial", then whatever evolution produces in our behavior in future, as "evil" as it now might seem to us, would have to be what is moral by definition. So your hope that we'll become "more moral" in future is irrational -- by your reasoning it will by definition be more moral, no matter what it is, precisely because it will have happened.

  17. I left off the last paragraph of my post. Thinking I'm right doesn't preclude me from being an idiot now and then. :)

    I merely wanted to point out that your desire for an absolute moral code in a material, evolutionary universe looks to me like the same sort of wishful thinking you accuse us Christians of.

  18. Wes: could be. But why not base your beliefs on what is evident, remaining open (by definition) to the concept that more will always be learned, as opposed to basing them, statically, on a magic book about a magic guy? What you say about logic is illogical; I can't say (as I already said) what thought really is, and neither can you. The Christian belief, though, (as I already said) in an omniscient, omnipotent god is completely inconsistent with free will, other than by convolution and machination. Or unless you accept that he made it, and is now 100% absent of any input. (I've said that, too. Which is why, once again, I defer to you for any final words. We're talking across one another.)

  19. Sid, again thanks.

    In the context of this discussion, it seems to me that you are the one who's not basing his beliefs on what is evident. You seem to want to believe that "evident" means the physical things we see and study and interpret, but you're forgetting that the very fact that we study and interpret is part of the evidence we should consider. It's evident is that all people, everywhere, at all times (including you) believe that there is a universal moral code that is higher than mere individual experience and preference. You believe that being open to learning new things is a good thing and so do I, but that's part of the evidence too. You can't support that, or a universal moral code, from an evolutionary, materialist worldview. Mere fact only gives us the *is* of things, but every philosopher knows that *is* implies nothing about *ought*. And yet we all believe in *ought*.

    I don't think we're talking past each other, I just think you're unable to answer the question I'm trying to pose. I want you to get down underneath your assumptions and wonder whether they're more consistent with your worldview or mine, and I've tried to explain why they aren't consistent with yours; but you keep simply reasserting your assumptions and relying on argument from ignorance -- "we don't what thought is", "we hope to evolve into greater morality", etc. In other words, you're doing the very thing you accuse Christians of doing.

    It seems to me that your sleight of hand in wanting to claim universal morality from an evolutionary, materialist cosmos is much more of an appeal to "magic" than mine. And by the way, if I were to misrepresent science as badly as you misrepresent Christianity, you'd be (rightly) furious.

  20. Looking back, I see my reference to "assumptions" (second paragraph above) is unclear. I meant those of universal morality, absolute right and wrong, etc.


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