This Wednesday from 7:30 to 9:30pm at Uptown Espresso, 2504 4th Ave., Seattle
Given the bad odor attached to optimists from Dr. Pangloss to Rhonda Byrne, the evidence (somewhat contested) that pessimists are more likely to see the world as it really is, and the overwhelming evidence of species destruction and climate change, we decided to investigate an old chestnut: Do we live in the worst of times?
Hesiod and Ovid offer the Greek version in their Ages of Man mythologies. Roughly translated: “In the Golden Age, we were as gods, but in today’s Iron Age, we must work for a living, and our teenagers say ‘Whatever’ to our very faces.” The desert religions have their myth of the Garden of Eden and the Fall. The WWII generation looks longingly to the 50s. The Boomers, to the 60s. The post-boomers, the 80s. (No one misses the 70s.) And so a wave of nostalgia rolls forward across the decades, always lagging the present. (Though less and less — I heard people recalling Windows 95 with nostalgia in the early 2000s.) But is it really true that the past was better than the present?
There’s a lot of data out there, so let’s keep it simple. Women and children are typically a society’s most vulnerable members, so let’s ask whether the world is getting better or worse for them. At the time King John signed the Magna Carta establishing the basis for the rights of Englishmen, women and children were both understood as property. Because rape was prosecuted as a property tort (the victim being a husband or father rather than the woman), marital rape wasn’t even a legal concept — a man can’t steal his own property — and wasn’t criminalized in the U.S. until the 1970s. Here’s what’s happened since then (graphs courtesy of Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature):
At least with respect to violence against women and children in the U.S. since the 1990s, we can say, “The world is getting better.”
Richard Dawkins will provide the keynote address for the NW Freethought Alliance Conference.
Dates: Friday March 30 – Sunday April 1
Location: Renton Technical College, 3000 Northeast 4th Street, Renton, WA
An interesting take from David McCandless, visual data guru, on one of our questions:
The defender of the statement included “unnecessary suffering” in his specification of bad. Other bad things mentioned, such as civil strife, bigotry, and ignorance might be bad for causing unnecessary suffering or bad in themselves. It might be an empirically important point because assuming that we could get a measure of each bad and tease out causes, we’d need to know what counts as bad and what counts as a mere contributor to bad. At the conclusion of this review I’ll mention another possible good.
Things wouldn’t approach such clarity that we could agree on what evidence
counts for and against religion’s goodness. For one thing, I got the impression
that religion’s defenders wanted to disassociate bad from religion by saying
bad was in certain people who associated with religion and “corrupted” it for
their own ends. The person making this argument also said he believed that
religion got people to behave better than they otherwise would. That seems to make religion a morally queer species, susceptible to corruption by some bad people but with a remarkable power over other people to make them behave less badly.
I imagine that a similarly evasive line of defense could come in the form of a
claim that religions themselves never go bad. Instead, some bad non-religion
thing takes the name of a religion while the religion itself goes either dormant
or extinct. Here someone would simply be defining religion in such a way that
it would necessarily be good on balance, even if that meant we could never
surely identify it.
Perhaps the more significant defense came from the assertion that religions have comforted people when nothing else has. However that plausible claim came along with others that weakened its force. First that some manifestly false beliefs are harmless. Second that religions tell us things about the human condition that science can’t touch.
A child believing in Santa Claus might be cute. Such a regard for a child’s believing might be reasonable since a child generally has few responsibilities as a member of society. By contrast, we put ourselves at risk if we are generally complacent about false beliefs. In the West, adults have authority over their lives and some varying degrees of power within society. One would
hypothetically have no responsibility to check on the truth or falsity of a
particular belief if that belief had no consequence outside oneself. We
should question how one comes to believe that any particular beliefs would have no consequence.
It was claimed that religions tells us things about the human condition that
science can’t. That might be true if we include false things. It’s important
to appreciate that science can also produce false claims. However, evidence
receives much more respect from science than from religions.
Science tells us a great deal about human nature based on observation and
experiment, while religions give us stories and stereotypes. To remain ignorant of the former while receiving guidance from the latter might happen to result in no harm, but we should dispense with the fiction that tradition has authority regarding moral issues where nothing else does. That false belief is harmful because it gives ignorant people confidence in asserting what’s right for everyone.
I think that we agreed that very admirable people can have strong religious
beliefs. I’ve heard that the US prison population is significantly less
atheistic than the general population. It’s wrong to infer from such bare facts
any causal relations.
At a recent meeting Scot proposed that we define the good as something like
“realizing one’s full designed-in potential”. Depending on your perspective,
you might be inclined to see potential in terms of being rational, informed, and otherwise responsible. A person who holds on to false beliefs due to lack of curiosity could be viewed as having stunted potential.
I apologize if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s views.
[In order to push us more toward Socratic dialogue, we decided to change our process: Previously, we had framed our meetings as discussions of a question (e.g. What is the good?). This led to a lot of voicing of opinions, but not a lot of questioning. So now we also allow a member to make a statement which other members then question. In a recent meeting, a member asserted the proposition: On balance religion is bad. The above is a summary of the discussion. --prodigl]
Every time you go to sleep the events in the world continue without you. Upon awakening you find the world different than it was when you went to sleep. Events great and small have changed the world, your world: the sun and stars have seemed to rotate in their orbits, plants and animals have grown and eaten and moved around. Peoples all around the world have been awake and making changes and acting upon their concerns and desires. Disasters or wars may have occurred and changed the lives of those around you and perhaps your own.
Even within your own body without your attention or effort, your body has digested your last meal, repaired any damages to its internal organs (provided you slept long and well enough), and your mind has dreamt of who knows what.
What can we know for sure? How certain can our knowledge be? How much should we trust what we know or think we know? In what knowledge can we have reasonable, or absolute, confidence (or at least as much as can be had in this universe)? Is it reasonable to believe that we could be deluded about reality and if we did so, what would that get us? Would it help make our lives better in any way?
WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THESE THINGS?
What does it mean to Know, to be Real, to Exist, or to be True? As a set of pragmatic definitions I would argue for the following:
1) What we Know is what we can reproduce mentally in a usable way in our minds. By ‘usable’ I mean we are able to use what we know to change our behavior (even if that is merely expressing the stuff we know in language). There is only a tenuous connection between what we Know and what is demonstrably True. We ought to seek some external evidence before declaring something to be True.
2) What is Real is what ever has (or can have) an effect upon the Existing world or your life, physically or psychologically.
3) What Exists is what has physical effects or presence. The number ‘2’ is Real but has no Existence tho a statue of iron in the shape of the number would have Existence.
4) What is True is that which is in concord with the way that the universe actually is. Only to the extent that we are able to ascertain the way the universe is can we compare this to the belief or knowledge we wish to test. To the extent that there is a match we must, at least provisionally, declare the belief to be True. As we and others continue to test what we Know and it proves both reproducible and aligned with (hopefully accurate) observations of Nature (all or part of the universe ) then we can be ever more certain that our knowledge is True, at least in part.
WHAT CAN WE KNOW TO BE REAL?
I would assert that there are at least three things we can Know are absolutely Real (though whether they are True or not remains open to question):
1) Imaginary things and concepts: these seem to exist at the root of our knowing in that we have to imagine the world and put all the separate things we have perceived about it together in our imagination to feel that we know what it is. So any imaginary thing we include or invent feels absolutely real. Unfortunately it feels real even if it is not and requires a forceful disconfirmation to remove it from our mental models. But our knowing of them is as absolute as any thing can be.
2) Mathematical patterns: Mathematics professor and author Rudy Rucker has said that “Mathematics is the study of pure pattern”. What that means is that we humans have invented a set of symbols to describe patterns that seem basic to nature and to existence. These begin with One (1) our name for a single isolated thing in and of itself. Zero (0) absence of a thing. Negative one (-1) debt or something missing. Then we can continue with names for multiples of a thing: two (2), three (3) etc. in positive or negative directions. We can also describe parts in terms of fractions: half (1/2) a third (1/3) etc. These all started as we organized our sensory experiences, but soon the realm of numbers begin to show patterns in themselves- many of which we subsequently find in the world but many more seem confined to the realm of numbers. And yet all these seem real because anyone who learns the symbols can come to the same conclusions about the patterns. This verification between what we think we know and what another person (or sentient being) can tell us they know is one of the few tools we have to verify that we are not just believing in fantasies.
3) Perhaps our Fundamental Perceptual Bias is that there is some kind of external world and that we the perceiver are somehow separate. The self (the ‘I’) is everything seemingly under personal control; the world is everything else including most of your body most of the time.
Some evidence for this is a fact that we all can experience if we pay enough attention: that when we sleep the world undergoes changes unbidden by us and in a more or less predictable and coherent way. You scarcely can shape them and only most generally predict them with any warranted certainty but they happen; every event from the sunrise to the digestion of the meal the evening before. This suggests that you and the world are separate.
And yet your body is embedded within the world as you perceive it. And you can (apparently) make changes to the world either in the choice of where to place your attentions, or what voluntary actions to initiate (or refuse). These can lead to changes in the (apparently) external world which are more or less permanent depending upon the lifespan of the phenomena in question — from throwing a pebble into a pond (where the ripples are short lived), to throwing a baseball thru a window (where the effects are permanent).
HOW CAN WE TEST WHAT WE (THINK THAT WE) KNOW?
We have discovered a method to carefully test what we think we know about the universe, we have come to call it the ‘Scientific Method’. Through precise activity and careful observations we try to express as succinctly as possible, in some symbolic language, our observations (along with how we created or found the situation and our procedures for observation of the results). These can be understood by our fellow humans and they can conduct the same activity and make observations in the same conditions. Then they express their agreement with, or objection(s) to, our conclusions about what we observed. This is the essence of a properly done scientific experiment.
Either way this is evidence that there is a real enough external world and if both sets of observations are in agreement then that is evidence some degree of ‘absolute’ Truth in the expressed observations. At least the truth so expressed is likely to be as close to TRUTH as we are ever likely to get.
HOW DO WE KNOW THAT WE ARE NOT JUST INVENTING OUR KNOWLEDGE?
If the world is Real then your subjective experience is likely to be Real as well, though what you KNOW could be incorrect and you must test it with the tools at your disposal, i.e. your reason, logic and judgement. Even using the scientific method you must be careful not to lie to yourself or to allow your wishful thinking or desire to color your observations. It would do us all well to remember the advice of physicist Richard Feynman: “…you are the easiest person [for yourself] to fool.” This is why the essence of the method is verification by the observations of others who are trying to reproduce your actions but disprove your conclusions. If they can’t then maybe it is OK for you to believe your conclusions are reasonable.
WHAT IF EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE IS AN ILLUSION?
If our sensory observations are but illusory then we are never likely to be able to get far enough separation from them to be able to ascertain that fact (if it indeed were a fact) so such discussion, far from being about anything absolute is simply idle speculation or else the stuff of fantasy (or nightmares) whose place is in fictions that entertain and amuse.
If you believe in imaginary ideas they will most likely be of little use and eventually will prove false or empty. At least with sensory data that has some mutual verification it is more likely that these will remain true evidence and be able to support your manipulations and bring about change to the REAL world, perhaps even changes that are closer to what you thought or wanted.
-ccc- SJ Levy (inspired by a Seattle Socrates Cafe discussion about “Are there any Absolutes?” on Oct 28, 2009).
(Creative Commons Copyright)
Jesse K submits this evidence.
While living in Seattle, Jesse used to dialogue regularly with SCS and now facilitates the San Diego Socrates Cafe, with 123 members. Last summer, he dropped by Socrates Cafe Seattle. You can hear him in the audio of our July 22nd discussion. (He weighs in on the politics of Burning Man.)
The fruits of insomnia.
You can now read this page in Greek (and 50 or so other languages, though, sadly, not Esperanto) simply by toggling the widget in the lower right sidebar.
Thanks for all the feedback on the new site! I’ve placed reciprocal links between new site and old (and fixed typos!), per your suggestions. So if someone seems interested in dropping by or joining the email list, tell them “Go to Socrates Cafe dot info” and they’ll find both sites.
Or, hey, you can tell them “Go to Groups dot Yahoo dot com slash Group slash (all one word) socratescafeseattle. No, don’t include ‘all one word’! I meant socratescafeseattle is all one word.”
I also tweaked language on the Yahoo Group to improve Google results for the old site.
I’m pleased to report that socratescafe.info now ranks on Google page 1 for both “socrates cafe seattle” and “seattle socrates cafe”. (Interestingly, Google treats these as different searches.)
Alas, the new site doesn’t even rank in Yahoo searches. But no matter! The Yahoo Group ranks on Yahoo page 1. (And its Google placement is also much improved.)
Now, back to philosophy.