Monday, June 3, 2013

Is religious fundamentalism a mental illness? (i.e. can you catch a mental cold?)

Evolutionary biologist and atheist free thinker Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True
blogged on a recent short article at The Raw Story about remarks made by Karen Taylor, neuroscientist and author of the book Brainwashing: The science of thought control.

The headline leads with her speculation that certain religious beliefs might eventually be treated as mental illnesses, with religious fundamentalism as the cited example.  This was slightly misleading because her point wasn't really about religion, but that a developing science and technology of thought intervention opens up possibilities and realities that are not morally neutral and that we should start preparing our ethics to handle them.  A reliable technology for disposing of a belief and replacing it with another would force decisions on us we currently don't have to think about.  The right decision it might not be as easy as banning it's use.

Of course the ensuing discussion in the comments covered all the bases about the moral pitfalls of treating beliefs as illness.  Commenters called out the dubious ethics of labeling someone who disagrees with you as sick (that this makes up a sizable fraction of all internet discourse was not discussed). The Soviet enforced hospitalization and "treatment" of dissidents as proxy punishment was properly brought up.  Coyne and followers were also dubious of the epistemic validity of equating beliefs with illness, and at first I agreed.
Religious beliefs can hardly be thought of as mental illness.  Taking the word of large numbers of people or even the word of as little as one very charismatic individual is common human behavior.  These are just purchases in the marketplace of ideas, not signs of underlying disease.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I might still be missing the point because of the different ways we think of mental illness versus illness in general.

The general construct illness is fairly broad and contains many variations on the theme.
One may be ill as the result of a hereditary or congenital problem with one's own structural or functional physiology, e.g.. Spina bifida, Prader-Willi syndrome, juvenile diabetes, or cystic fibrosis.  One may be ill as the result of a spontaneous malfunction that develops in an otherwise normally functioning body;  multiple sclerosis say, or developing breast cancer as a result of having BRCA1. The common thread of these illnesses are that they are the result of being put together wrong somehow or something in you spontaneously failing.  The source of the illness being an internal and inherent quality of one's particular body.  On the other hand, one may be ill as the result of infection by some external pathogen (e.g. food poisoning, measles, aids) or exposure to some kind of toxin. The illness is not the result of your individual variation, but of widespread human susceptibility to the outside agent like the Spanish Flu of 1918.  We also understand that there are interactions. Dangerous allergies are the result of a nominally harmless (or minimally harmful in the case of say bee stings) external agent interacting with a unique inherent individual physiology.  Likewise external carcinogens do not induce disease uniformly, interacting more pathologically with the physiology of certain individuals.

On the other hand when we think of mental illness our current conventional wisdom doesn't include the pathogen or toxin model that would support a concept of a belief as an illness in and of itself.  At least part of the reason is easy to spot.  This is incompatible with concepts of absolute liberty of thought supported by free will.  Beliefs are just thoughts, volitional products of our own agency. If they are bad, it is because the brain holding them is too faulty to act at liberty with free will. A bad belief (if there is even such a thing) can't be an infection of an intact brain. Ergo, mental illness must be inherent. You cannot be MADE mentally ill by the thoughts that get into your head. The logic being that if the just the thoughts were making you ill, you'd just flush them out yourself and replace them with better thoughts of your own.

The failure of the free will doctrine undermines this however.  So it's quite reasonable (albeit potentially frightening for all the reasons lightly touched in the third paragraph) to talk about thoughts as agents of sickness the same way we talk about having a cold or exposure to poison ivy or ingesting strychnine.

One source of our fear is of course the social stereotype and stigma of mental illness. While the term itself denotes the mere fact of being sick in or by ones thoughts and emotions, the social connotations imply a severe, intractable, quasi-criminal existential threat, or a permanent invalid. This not only causes people to react to mental illness in inappropriate, unhelpful and excessive ways, it also causes them to require claims that something is a mental illness meet that criteria.  There's even a confounding ambivalence between the conceptions of threat vs. sufferer.  There's an insidious cultural mythology about schizophrenia that the psychosis somehow overrides the ability to be miserable. Spend a week on a psych ward and you learn that is not the case. Psychosis is a wholesale distributor of profound human misery and despair.

But the fact remains, mental illness in the public mind implies permanent menace or permanent uselessness. In our minds, there are no mental health equivalents to having a cold, or being laid up with a mental equivalent of home-puking-your-guts-out-you-poor-thing. In those physical analogs the ailments are mere impediments to flourishing, calling for the right measures of aid, healing, and understanding.  We have trouble seeing mental illness this way. It's getting better but we have a long way to go.  This is not to say that we don't respond to mental suffering or struggle properly either.  Coming to the aid of someone mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by circumstances (divorce, job loss, death of loved one) is common practice. So is trying to help someone who we realize has misunderstandings that cause them to suffer and grossly impede their ability to flourish. Yet we can't quite bring ourselves to acknowledge them as sickened or afflicted in the same fashion we acknowledge someone with Influenza. They have to be broken by it some way first, and even then there are lots of reservations.

The point of all this being that until our conception of mental illness develops the same level of nuance that our conception of physical (read not-mental) illness has, tagging anything as a mental illness will be problematic. The originator may have a very properly nuanced claim about why a certain thing can be properly called such, and may even articulate the nuance well. Yet until society is ready to receive that nuance without recasting it into the misconceptions that currently hold sway this this will remain a risky business indeed.

Still one can't rule out an eventual utility to letting some beliefs get treated as illness.  Take a case where a person has trust issues and has come to believe their spouse is unfaithful. There may have even been a past indiscretion, but they've worked hard to reconcile.  The transgressor has repented, and is genuinely sorry, and for all practical purposes can be trusted, but their spouse just can't shed the belief in their infidelity.  They know that this is because of the trust issues. They have an adult understanding of the psychogenic source of the the belief's persistence.  If there were a reliable methodological aide to changing that belief, and if they wanted to access it for the purpose of allowing their relationship to flourish going forward, would it be ethical not to provide it?  It may not be possible to abdicate our obligation to solve ethical questions just because they wouldn't exist without the methodology.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Would our extinction be so bad?

It's bad enough that we have to contemplate our own mortality and that of those we love and care for, but our understanding of our state of affairs is forcing us to contemplate the reality that species don't last either.
Humans, being a species, are not immune, so it's certain that at some point down the line there will no longer be anything recognizably homo sapiens sapiens.

The first thought we tend to have about this eventuality is that it's a disaster, and I'll agree that if were talking about (geologically) sudden extirpation of our kind, say by asteroid, it's pretty easy to put it on the VERY-BAD-NOT-GOOD side of the ledger.  But say that in, oh, maybe 400,000 years the earth no longer hosts a single human being, would that be a bad thing?  What should we feel about such an eventuality?

It could depend on how the disappearance came about.  Would my australopithecene great-to-the-Nth grandfather lament the differences between Lucy and my daughter Claire?  Should we see ourselves as  their triumph through the ages or the record of their eventual downfall?  If we view it as triumph, than if we are simply displaced by a new branch of evolutionary descendants, we should see it as surviving. After all, we already know our descendants are going to be a little different, if they eventually become a lot different, how bad would that be?

On the other hand suppose our ecological niche slowly disappeared and our numbers dwindled down to zero. Or a virus evolved that impaired our ability to reproduce with the same result.  Would that be so awful?  If so, why?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Skepticism vs. Absolute Freedom of Thought

Is there an irreconcilable conflict between absolute freedom of thought and skepticism?
If we define skepticism as the insistence that all truth claims must be vetted through reason, evidence, and otherwise sound epistemology, then were imposing strong restrictions on our true belief.  If absolute freedom of thought implies zero duty to concede anything to anyone; if there are no restrictions on true belief under absolute freedom of thought, whence the necessary restrictions of skepticism?

A skeptic provides a priori the standards, benchmarks, and requirements by which they are willing to be convinced.  This represents a partial abdication of their absolute freedom in favor of saying, "rather than merely believing whatever appeals to me,  I will follow the data and the logic to it's best conclusion independent of what I expect or want."   A skeptic has obligations.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why are you safe from me?

There will be a lot of talk about security and prevention over the next few months.  As you listen and take part in these conversations, I would have you keep this in the back of your mind.

We walk past each other daily, most of us as strangers. We rarely notice just how simple and easy it would be to inflict grievous harm on our fellows.  Something heavy in the hand, an earnest well-aimed blow, and just like that, a human being is killed or maimed by our hand.  Add some other tools and the right knowledge and it becomes even easier to do--to even more people, but such tools and knowledge are not necessary, and in any case they're not difficult to obtain.

The idea that all our security apparatus, and police, and weapons, and retributive justice do the bulk of prevention of such behavior is a fantasy.  They have some effect out on the margins for sure, but their effect pales compared to what really prevents this kind of violence.  Desire.

Like almost everyone I know, I have never crushed anyone's skull, or set someone on fire, or poisoned them, or blown them to bits with explosives. The reason seems to me very simple. I've never really wanted to do so.  Sure I've been angry, and like anyone my mind has indulged abstract notions of doing harm to someone for some real or imagined grievance. Fortunately this has never risen to the level of my taking action.  If (forbid it) my mind works into a state of truly wanting to make such things happen, and I keep this reasonably to myself so that no one knows how dangerous I have suddenly become, what's to stop me?  For all practical purposes, nothing.

Maybe you're feeling a little creepy wondering just how much time I spend contemplating whether to commit one of these gruesome acts.  Very little, per se, let me assure you.  It's just that we have been mired in a long public conversation about security from national to personal for years, and that conversation is usually framed in terms of "What protects me from others?".  I imagined a partial answer was available by casting myself as the potential threat and instead asking "What protects others from me?"  The grim musings are a part of this thought experiment.

It seems obvious that what protects others from me, is, well, me.  I am the chief impediment, or more properly my lack of desire to do harm is.  This is marginally augmented by the social protections and sanctions of society and it's laws, as well as the threat to me if my intended victim has a chance to act in their own defense, but only marginally.

So while the issue of public and private security is revisited in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings, keep in mind that security flows not from its apparatus, but the cultivation of trust, loyalty to strangers, and above all our mutually learning not to want the destruction of other human beings.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sorry, this wasn't the real battle with big money

Loath am I to harsh the well-earned mellow this fine shining morning, but before too much of the adrenaline wears off, a warning.  Dark money gets more bang for its buck in the mid-term elections where turnout tends to be low (i.e when the voters suppress themselves).  The GOP knows the demographic tides they swim against and they already have plans in place to re-stock the war chests and push ahead for 2014.  Even now they hope to achieve again what they accomplished in 2010, floating bizarre reactionaries into office on a tide of money while the bulk of the electorate stays home.

So while it was critical for all of us to work and turn out for yesterday's outcome, our harder fight is coming.  They are waiting for us to stop punching, to stop guarding our heads.  Ruling classes never quit--ever.

If yesterday's gains from our investment is to become a growing portfolio we have to keep working, because as encouraging as the results were, they are not all that big.

If you are serious about not having yesterday's results cut out from under us in the short term, treat the next two years like you treated the last two, maybe even more so.  The tactics are the same.

Write many letters.  Handwritten if possible.  Send them to officeholders on both sides.
Raise money.
Communicate regularly with allies.
Fact-check relentlessly and publish and share all things necessary to drag the opposition into the light.
Be true.  The reality-based community swims against a strong tide, but it successfully forced blatant falsehood have a pretty bad day yesterday.  We need to sustain that. Hammer reality home at every chance.

Above all, DON'T. GET. COCKY.

They have a lot of money to play with.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Myriad Problems with Pascal's Wager.

For those of you who don't know, Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist.    For most of his early life he was ambivalent about religion, taking it up only to drop it again.  Then at the age of 31 he had an intense religious experience late one night in bed, after which he became devoutly Catholic.  Still, as a philosopher he realized there was a problem.  In the absence of such an experience  what compelling reason would there be to believe. Rigorous skepticism, with which Pascal was intimately familiar as a scientist, would suggest not believing.  One must expect therefore a considerable number of people "so made as they cannot believe" on perfectly reasonable grounds.  What of them?  As a probability theorist, Pascal attempted to solve the problem mathematically as a wager in the following terms.
  1. "God is, or He is not"
  2. A Game is being played... where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend either of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It's not optional.)
  5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (...) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

In short,
If you bet on the truth of atheism and are wrong, you suffer an infinite infinity of misery in hell.
If you bet on the truth of atheism and are right, it has little to no effect on your outcomes.

If you bet on the truth of Christian doctrine and are wrong, it has little to no effect on your outcomes.

If you bet on the truth of Christian doctrine and are right, you enjoy an infinity of infinite happiness in heaven.

Therefore, Pascal argues, even if the truth of the Christian Doctrine is extremely unlikely, one should still choose to believe in it to maximize your expected outcomes. Why? Because of the math.
The expected outcome of any binary wager is the sum of the two outcomes weighted by their respective probabilities.  Say the probability that Christian doctrine is true is ten million to one, or 0.0000001.  That sets  the probability that atheism is true at 0.9999999.  What happens if you bet on atheism.  If atheism turns out to be right as the odds suggest, you have simply ended up with some fixed quantity of benefit from your one-and-only life.  If you were fortunate it was pretty good even if it seemed a little too short.  On the other hand it may have sucked but at least its over now, que sera.  In either case its a finite quantity, lets call it X.  If atheism turns out to be wrong though, you get an eternity of infinite suffering tacked on after death, which we express as the quantity minus infinity (-inf).  The expected return E of a bet on atheism is then  negative infinity.

E=0.0000001*(-inf) + 0.9999999*X = -inf

Because even 1 tenmillionth of negative infinity is a negative infinity, and it remains so even if you add 9,999,999 ten millionths of a finite quantity to it.  The presence of an infinite quantity overwhelms the finite probabilities and the finite outcome X.

Flip it around and for exactly the same reasons, a bet in favor of the Christian doctrine where the reward for being right is an eternity of infinite happiness, or plus infinity (+inf), gives an expectation value of

E=0.0000001*(+inf) + 0.9999999*X = +inf

Therefore, says Pascal, using the same logic you would apply to any game of chance, or an investment portfolio, bet on the Christian Doctrine.

That all seems straightforward, right? .  Obviously one should believe in the Christian Doctrine.

Well, no.

Notice first how Pascal drastically and artificially limits the possibilities.  Only Atheism or the Christian doctrine are permitted.  Then the associated outcomes after death limited to three possibilities: oblivion, infinite eternal torment, or infinite eternal happiness.  These are added on to whatever one's worldly life amounts to, which only counts, in Pascal's scheme if Atheism is correct, because then your one and only worldly life is all you get.

Pascal gets away with only two options because most of us spend our lives embedded in a society with one dominant religion. Having one option to unbelief seems natural.  But there and have been thousands of religions based on myriad gods, with incompatible dogma and doctrines. This means that at least most of them have to be wrong.  Pascal just excludes these out of hand, but we have to take all comers.  I would argue that as the minimum number of candidate religions that must be wrong grows, the odds that all of them are probably wrong goes up too.  Even if we can be sure that there is a correct choice, we should expect to get it wrong given the sheer number of options.

We also must ask what constitutes an acceptable wager on Christian Doctrine under Pascal's conditions. When Pascal tells us to just go ahead and believe, what does that mean? How does that go?  Starting from a point of unbelief, a lot depends on what holds is necessary and sufficient for Christian salvation.  If you have to genuinely believe, then Pascal is assuming that for the right reward (instead of a convincing case) we can, of our own volition, create true belief; spinning it fully formed out of a sliver of doubt in our atheism.  On the other hand, if true belief is not required, Pascal would appear to be telling us that we should simply act as if we believe. This runs right up against the debate about whether Christian salvation is a matter of what you really believe, or what you say or appear to believe, or dependent on act commensurate with the doctrine.

Neither seems very plausible. Belief isn't a matter of volition. I cannot arbitrarily decide that I believe the the Earth is a flat disc; I KNOW it's a sphere. Is it plausible that merely for some reward (say $2,000,000), I could actually stop thinking that? No! That is not how true belief and knowledge work. On the other hand it's even less plausible that feigned belief would pass as a hedge bet by a true unbeliever. It implies a God that accepts phony Bad Faith, which seems a bit sleazy.

It's also no accident that Pascal needs the stakes to be so exaggerated, otherwise there would be nothing to offset the utter lack of evidence on which to base a decision. This is simple game theory. Who would buy a $1 Lotto ticket at 47 million:1 odds if the max payout was $15? No one. The stakes HAVE to be outrageous.  This is the heart of Pascal's argument.: Given the unlimited size of the purported "Jackpot" isn't even a remote chance worth the gamble?

Well, No. Exagerating the stakes in cases where the odds against are astronomically high is merely an exploitation ploy against human psychology.  This is how people are duped into buying Lotto tickets, or penny stocks.  Most of us lack the intuition to grasp really large and really small values. When outrageous claims are in play, it becomes almost certain that someone is being played for a sap on that basis.

The last thing wrong with the wager is it's faulty assessment of the cost of belief.  Pascal asserted that the cost was essentially nil. If there is no god, no heaven, the true believer simply dies and ceases to be regardless of his belief. In this case, since he is not even alive to be disappointed, Pascal sees this as a wash.

But is this true? True Belief spawns large and small changes in one's behavior. A sizable portion of these changes serve to benefit the faith as an institution much more than the believer  as an individual. True Believers invest significant portions of their money and time, and cede a lot of their autonomy to the church and its observances.  For the private unbeliever, who is merely trying to hedge his bet per Pascal's recommendation the situation is worse.   He is still compelled by his strategy to act out as if he were a true believer.  To cover remote chance that salvation will be needed, he must make the best show of belief he can muster.  If what he really thinks doesn't matter, the quality of his pretense is all that's left.  This is the most insidious hidden cost ignored by Pascal.  It is physically and emotionally painful to break the integrity between how we truly think and feel and how we speak and act.  It feels good to be honest with and about ourselves, both privately and publicly, whereas we suffer when we are false.  There are certainly exceptions, and our ability to tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity is one of our better traits.  Still, the evidence is that we are more miserable, perhaps most miserable, when we deny true selves.

This is not to deny value of the community, solidarity and moral teamwork one finds in church involvement. This can offset some of the real cost of belief, but that's the point. Such things have to be counted because Pascal is wrong in his basic assumption. Belief, true or pretended, comes with a real bill which is often high.