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This Wednesday from 7:30 to 9:30pm at Uptown Espresso, 2504 4th Ave., Seattle

Is the world getting worse?

2013 August 21
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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.”

NW Freethought Alliance Conference 2012

2012 March 2
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by prodigl

Richard Dawkins will provide the keynote address for the NW Freethought Alliance Conference.

Dawkins to Speak in Renton.

Dates: Friday March 30 – Sunday April 1

Location: Renton Technical College, 3000 Northeast 4th Street, Renton, WA

What is wisdom?

2010 December 15
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by prodigl

An interesting take from David McCandless, visual data guru, on one of our questions:

What is wisdom?

What is wisdom?

“On balance religion is bad.”

2010 October 16
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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]

Are there any things we can know absolutely?

2009 November 30
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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)

Was Socrates cool?

2009 November 7
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by prodigl

socrates-colorJesse 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.)

Σωκράτης Cafe Σιάτλ

2009 November 5
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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.

Social Darwinism as modern mythology

2009 November 2

[Commenting on a prior post, Sid challenged whether social Darwinism can be considered mythology. I thought Stu's detailed reply--a mini-essay really-- deserved it's own post.  --prodigl]

Hi Sid,

First off, you’re correct in your understanding: Darwinists of today (known more formally as evolutionary biologists) never use the term social Darwinism nor apply social Darwinist ideas to people (though I am sure someone can locate a rogue biologist who does); most of them regard the term as illegitimate since human culture–which includes political action–has (and had even in Darwin’s day) replaced nature as the prime force upon human survival.

Those who coined the term in the 19th century (Darwin didn’t use it) were social progressives attempting to show how every natural law in the universe leads to progress. It seemed at the time that life was indeed looking up for many folks, some more than others. Like elites in other times and places, those atop the Victorian social order placed themselves at the top of the ‘natural’ order of things, though Darwin himself (in The Descent Of Man, a follow-up to On the Origin of Species) cautioned against what his cousin Francis Galton approvingly (and what we today disparagingly) would term eugenics:

…if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.

Many who still do use the term social Darwinism today are the ultra-rich (and their apologists) who want to justify positions of privilege, just as robber baron capitalists in the late 1800′s justified cutthroat business dealings. Ironically, proponents of social Darwinist mythology (and its ‘Survival of the Fittest’ myth) include a contingent of fundamentalist Christians who firmly believe in God and a divine plan, all the while calling for removal of evolution in school curricula (and, in a curious non sequitur, lower taxes for the rich).

Myths in the modern world are tools we humans have at our disposal to convince others that certain ideas are ‘true’. Those in positions of wealth and influence have used the social Darwinism myth in order to preserve their positions of privilege. They need only convince their fellow humans (or at least some of them) to accept a myth as valid. Social Darwinism is, primarily, a story about why the losers of cultural and political battles ought to give up fighting and accept the status quo as not only natural, expected, or preordained, but even desirable.

Members of the privileged class don’t have to prove their fitness in accordance with the theory, since, as far as they are concerned, it’s a self-evident truth. It doesn’t matter if they truly believe in the myth. Though, personally, I suspect most of them do. It’s only important to get the culture at large (or at the very least those who might work for change) to accept the myth.

If you can get your opponents to accept their status as inferior (or beaten), then you have won the war without fighting. The social Darwinist myth holds that everyone is (and was destined to be) in their ‘proper’ (social) place and that things could not have turned out differently, which implies that no change in position, influence (i.e., voice in society or government), or wealth is needed, nor is any desirable since intentional change ‘violates’ the ‘natural’ order’ of things.

The mythology of social Darwinism ignores or outright denies a number of facts:

1) Survival is not of the fittest (at least not often) but merely the luckiest of the least unfit. Mediocrity can thrive as long as it is does not possess a trait that actively hurts its chances of survival, and even the not-so-fit can survive as long as it is lucky; selection works in the negative: culling the unfit. Selection has no mechanism to eliminate all competition to the most fit. Survival only proves luck or lack of bad genes or traits.

2) As the environment changes, those that were most fit can quickly become trapped by their fitness to the old conditions, unable to adapt fast enough to the new ones. In other words, fitness is not a static condition.

3) Even if the social Darwinist myth were true, we humans needn’t accept its outcomes. At least in the modern world, we have enough resources to create a more equitable distribution than that made by chance.

4) There is no divine plan ordaining the lucky few as the ‘fittest’. Biologists and geneticists have demonstrated (with support of computer models) that, given enough time and small changes, no plan is necessary. (See Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett for more detail.)

5) In our human world, many of the pressures on survival or success are human-made and therefore open to change by human beings. Even were there a divine plan, if we humans have been granted free will, God couldn’t guarantee that pivotal historical figures would come to the ‘right’ conclusions. Otherwise, there is no free will at all. So this further puts the onus upon all of us to act fairly towards each other instead of pushing unsupportable social fictions about the fitness of some individual or group.

Thus, I think one can reasonably argue that social Darwinism, in its simplest, crudest form is mythology since it explains nothing real or active in the present day. It is an unsupportable story (a social lie) used to justify immoral actions or conditions. Its moral lesson is that those with little ought to accept their proper place.

Well, I hope this is food for thought or discussion. Feel free to comment as you wish.

It is cool to hear that your group is similar in size and dynamic to ours. I wish you all well in your endeavors from all of us at Socrates Cafe Seattle to you in Okemos Michigan.

Best Regards,

Stu Levy, Co-facilitator SCS

Socrates Cafe Seattle: Now Googleable

2009 November 1
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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.

Yahoo Groups site for Socrates Cafe Seattle

2009 October 30
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We also have a members-only website at Yahoo Groups that now includes 78 people. If you’d like to receive email updates and explore the past several years of posts, please join us there as well.