Archives for category: Social Psychology

Explaining religion is not necessarily a simple matter.

I grew up taught to believe that the stories of my religion were true. But as I grew older, certain inconsistencies and antinomies weighed upon my mind, and I found myself incredulous about the whole matter, so I gave up on the beliefs and the rites.

But, if not literally true, is religion — or all religions, or some — figuratively true? Supremely useful? Something else?

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Ch. II

I was taught to regard the religion I was born into as true, literally so, and all others as false, with a faint chance that shadow meaning sometimes figuratively refracting the truth — but more likely “of the Devil.” Converting out of the religion, it was easy to treat my youthful theological stance as Atheism With One Exception, making actual atheism merely a final step.

But I did understand a discordant note to this secular triumphalism: henotheism. It was clear that Judaism began with a polytheism-in-fact but monotheism-in-practice: “thou shalt have no other gods before Me” more than implied a multiplicity of deities. Yahweh was good, all others were bad — or, even less strong a position: Yahweh was ours and all others were theirs. The Chosen People idea seemed to imply one of many gods choosing and nurturing a bloodline of people to serve His agenda. But this idea, while clear in my head, I somehow never took all that seriously.

What did I take seriously? The “ghost theory” and exaptation. These ideas can be found in the sociology of Herbert Spencer, and the latter has been greatly expanded by contemporary evolutionary psychology. Beliefs in the gods arose from memories of dead leaders echoing in human brains and showing up in dreams. And hallucinations. That is the irritant that starts the pearl that is religion. But then something else happens: religious belief and practice is discovered to be useful.

To all sorts of people. For good and ill.

But one use we fell into. It turns out that when we less-than-well-tempered hominids — Hominoids — even contemplate a putatively divine being or concept, or even any “transcendent object” or priniple, we think and behave less like selfish, short-sighted apes. We begin to behave morally.

And thus the transcendent notion, whatever it is, can serve as a social signal that can encourage others to see our intent to coöperate, not engage in harm. Whatever religious idea we hold can gain a lot of traction when folks come to rely on such signalling.

Thus, the gods.

A simple story, this secular account, and it can be filed under the heading Exaptation — a thing that originated for one reason surviving for other reasons. It was as if adapted for a new purpose, but as naturally selected, sort of adapting itself.

A meme — a replicable habit — spread for reasons independent of its explicit rationale.

Great story.

It may even be true.

Almost certainly it is true.

But it is not the whole story: we still have that initial irritant. The “ghosts.” Which though inconvenient after the religion becomes a memetic hit, still persist.

And there is an outside possibility that some of those irritants in the oyster of our imaginations are, themselves, Not What They Seem.

They may be neither dreams nor hallucinations nor memories.

They might be aliens.

In a fascinating dcumentary about a man who paints his alleged encounters with aliens, some of whom with which he engages in sexual acts, Love and Saucers, we learn about an odd variety of religious experience, the sexual extraterrestrial encounter. Philosopher Jeffrey Kripal, quoted in the movie, tells us that religious experiences with a sexual component are common in the literature. He also sees alien encounter and abduction stories as not dissimilar from past religious tales. What they interpreted as angels we, in a more scientific age, interpret as extraterrestrials.

And such experiences are not uncommon.

So, do we have these experiences because of some quirk of our psychologies, as evolved from the distant past?

Or is it something more direct?

I do not know.

I have never had an encounter as described by the painter in Love and Saucers. It would be easy to mock him. That is something I am sure my “skeptic” friends online would be inclined to do.

But I no longer do such things. If David Huggins, the subject of the documentary, is conjuring these “memories” by confabulation, that is almost as astounding as the events he describes.

And then there is the wider context. Do we have certainty that encounters with “aliens” do not happen? I do not have that certainty of conviction, of dismissive incredulity. I do not have enough faith to dismiss out of hand the UFO context.

Now, I understand, that wider context and the evidence for it may be peculiar in the extreme, sure — but it is vast. The number of documents leaked from governments, and the hundreds — the thousands — of seemingly earnest testimonies from military personnel and government contractors, airline passengers, and workers about encounters with bizarre flying and submersible crafts is huge. And these crafts — in government documents and reports as well as in reams of testimony, apparently run according to principles nothing like the technology we know, which is based on aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, and on the many types of internal combustion engines . . . well, the number and weight of the testimony is almost disturbing.

Further, there appears to be an ongoing government disclosure of information about these encounters, around the world, and even — belatedly, with a great lag — from the biggest, most UFOey government of them all, the United States of Military Industrial Complex.

I do not know what to make of all this. Not with anything approaching certainty. And were it not for the Cato Institute, I might not be thinking about it at all.

A number of years ago the libertaran think tank fired one of its consulting scholars, economist Dom Armentano — removed him from their honor roll, so to speak. Why? Because he had come out for UFO disclosure.

Think about this. The retired professor merely expressed a support for transparency in government on an issue of public interest. But the “heroic” Cato management could not even be associated with something as tame as that.

When I heard this, I experienced something like shock. I had thought I understood the cultism of the cultural center, its proneness to shaming and shunning and marginalization . . . perpetrated to keep the hierarchy of the in-group secure against all comers. But Cato is libertarian. Do Cato-ites think their propinquity to power, geographically, makes them in the in-group? If any tribe on the planet has reason to understand the corrosive nature of in-group intellectual regimentation, it would be libertarians. And if any group should be prone to resist such nonsense, then it must be libertarians, right?

Apparently not. Cato was so eager for respectability, and so unimaginative that an illustrious economist had to be purged.

This is when I realized the astounding extent of ideological cultism in America, and its corrupting powers. And, once you realize how powerful that propensity is, then you can see how it could be manipulated.

By a conspiracy. At a power center.

For, alas, it seems likely that some conspiracy is involved. Either a cabal within the Deep State is conspiring to keep some dread secret from the world and from the citizens that the government putatively serves, or a big if ragtag group of military personel, domestic pilots, seamen, and a great number of civilians are perpetrating and perhaps coördinating a huge fraud.

About two years ago, I began to think the latter the less likely.

Further, I surmise, if I were in the Deep State and saw all these rumors swirl around me, I would regard them as a destabilizing force, as undermining governance by decreasing trust in basic institutions. I would earnestly support public research into and educational efforts about the phenomena, the better to thoroughly explain and debunk paranormal accounts and tall tales about UFOs and “aliens.” But, on the other hand, had I a secret to keep, a big one, letting the testimonies and photographs and rumors and urban legends spread while giving lukewarm and even preposterous counter-explanations might just work — to keep the secret. After all, I could count on all the little Catos out there, doing my work for me, keeping “the nuts” marginalized.

This does not mean that painter David Huggins is not some kind of a nut. There is room for psychological confabulation along the margins. But it sure looks like something strange is going on. The planet and its history may be stranger than we thought.

Indeed, “the gods” at the start of religions may not have been mere mirages and dreams and “visions.” Perhaps the Anunnaki and Quinametzin and Viracocha and that crowd really did help start our civilization, and that they seemed “gods” to us barely higher apes. And maybe they had some connection to the phenomena that we call “religious” — and maybe they have something to do with “aliens.”

In any case, Love and Saucers is a fascinating documentary.

And religion remains something of a mystery.

twv

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Cultic behavior is not limited to marginal groups.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the social controls we associate with cults are the prime drivers (with interesting differences) of almost all center-dominant cultural organizations, institutions and movements.

Most people adopt center-dominant beliefs not because of the beliefs’ truth-values, but for pragmatic reasons and for signalling. Think of it as “innocence by association.”

We should expect nothing else.

And it is for this reason that whole cultures can lurch into extremely perverse directions, whether they be Aztec mass sacrifice, communist political centralism, or even dietetic “science” and eating habits.

My favorite modern example is usually deficit spending by governments and debt accumulation — often excused by half-adopted, half-assessed Keynesianism while being driven by very different but very obvious Public Choice factors.

twv

wiseman

A timeline of me changing my attitude on iconoclasm:

  1. When Russians pulled down Lenin statues, at the end of the Soviet era, I cheered.
  2. When folks in Seattle’s Fremont District put up a Lenin statue, I snickered.
  3. When American forces, during the Conquest of Iraq, hit some major sites of ancient Mesopotamian civilization I was deeply irked.
  4. When ISIS began dismantling, destroying and selling off ancient statues from Assyria as “idols,” I was aghast that any modern would wish to treat as objects for either current reverence or irreverence millennia-old statuary.
  5. When SJWs turned against the statuary of the Civil War dead, I was somewhat disturbed that anyone would treat centuries-old and even decades-old memorials as objects for current reverence or irreverance — other than a reverance for history.

My attitude about recent iconoclasm is not unlike my attitude regarding speech: just as the proper response to speech one does not like is more speech, the proper response to statuary one doesn’t like is not iconoclasm but more statuary. It is easy to destroy, not so easy to put up new monuments — they cost money, at the very least. Destroying statuary amounts to destroying history. And destruction, even the destruction of ugly history, seems more like childishness than maturity. Adults should be able to look at a statue and not get sucked into its implied ideology.

And, surely, the postmoderns are right: any given artifact possesses more than one meaning. We Hyperboreans are authorized to pick and choose the meanings we prefer, surely.

I prefer knowledge to ignorance, truth over myth, and seeing even the most vile of monuments as examples of history.

Yes, I am one of those people fascinated by ancient monuments. I have been since very young. You know: the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, Göbekli Tepe, all that.  My interest has engendered quite a bit of reverence for these monuments’ historicity, not allegiance to their original functionality. I am quite certain I would not support the bulk of the policies of the ancient monument-builders were someone foolish enough to attempt to revive those policies.

I made peace with Lenin being in Seattle. Still . . . perhaps I should fear the statue’s influence on Seattle politics. Could it have given succor to socialism on the current Seattle City Council?

Which brings up an important point: republican governments should probably forgo the making of monuments. They are inherently propagandistic, and though celebrating the heroes of the republic seems a fine thing, it is worth doing this privately, with private funds on private land. If republics have any legitimacy, it is in defending individual rights. Adding propagandistic and eulogizing monuments to the mix of political duties is part of the ancien régime where much effort had to be made to pretend that leaders were gods, or,  at the very least, God’s servants upon the Midgard.

All this notwithstanding, were it up to me, a motto emblazoned upon every legislative house with the words Mundus vult decipi would be more apt than any other maxim, like E pluribus unum or Novus ordo seclorum.

But in politics, truth is not what you lead with.

twv

Sometimes we should take a step back and remember: we don’t know much, and much of what we “know” isn’t so.

IMG_2025This is especially the case in foreign affairs. Many important events and agendas are kept from the public. Whole organizations operate (and even exist) sub rosa. We are fed misinformation and lies on a regular basis. We are easily manipulated.

I have tried to hedge, or even seem Delphic, in the recent past, regarding Russia and North Korea, for instance. I know I know little, and more-than-merely-suspect that many who say they know important truths often only parrot half-truths, at best.

There has been way too much partisan nonsense about Russia in the past few years, and much of what is important about the “negotiations” between North Korea and the U.S., South Korea, et al., is kept far from public view.

IMG_2027We should try to keep in mind that manipulation of focus is the modus operandi of all major parties and organizations, and with it the clumsy and deceptive uses of statistics.

Arguably, one of the main jobs of the corporate media is to encourage people to think they are informed, while ensuring that they remain misinformed. News is not history or social science. It is entertainment. And the unfortunate unreliability and sheer perversity of the major media outlets does not need to be seen as a conspiracy (much of it being quite open). Ideological fantasy, partisan coup-stick conflict, and the profitability of hype and hysteria might explain most of it.

twv

C101AD62-2830-4978-8F58-AF94D3EF73A6

Three decades ago, I was briefly involved in a campaign in Jefferson County, Washington State, to prevent nuclear warheads from being stored within its borders. I knew it was a hopeless endeavor — there seemed zero chance for local government, spurred by idealistic citizens, to prevent the U.S. Navy from using nearby Indian Island as a maximum security repository for missiles and warheads taken from submarines scheduled for maintenance at Bangor Trident Base — but it did introduce me to the leftist activists in the northern parts of the Olympic Peninsula.

The fit was not always comfortable. Among many interesting moments with these people, I remember most clearly my first encounter with an angry feminist. And with clueless feminists.

FD110687-98A7-4289-95AC-B972EE0200C6But the biggest difference may have regarded our different ethical approaches. I was not prone to the same sort of moralism that they were, for one thing. Or Utopianism. I also had become convinced that MAD was a successful policy, on the whole, and that the traitorous Rosenbergs may have inadvertently served as the saviors not only of America but also of humanity. So I occasionally said things more than a tad out of place amongst the activists.

One of the odder moments of mutual incomprehension concerned the reasons to oppose the bomb storage. I offered a NIMBY argument, and mention the threat of terrorism. “Indian Island is a target.” The activists looked at me blankly. They were uninterested in terrorism. Terrorism was not on their radar, except, I suppose, as a tactic that they could imagine themselves using, push come to shove.

I remember Bob the bookseller looking at me, puzzled, having caught the implication of my logic. “Where do you want the bombs stored?” he asked. “And how many do you think we need?”

“How many nuclear bombs would you like?” That last question was rather pointed.

I had no idea, of course, so I shrugged. I am generally not good at prescribing for an institution I am not in any way responsible for.

C431E517-A2BF-4990-A419-D3BF9FF48CFCHonestly, I thought terrorism was the wave of the future. A few years later, after Bush’s invasions of Panama and Iraq, I was more confident yet. Sure enough, my suspicion proved increasingly savvy over the years, constituting one of two sets of prophecies that showed me not a complete nutball. I felt satisfied, I confess: I understood some things about the way the world worked that most people did not seem to. At all.

Yup, terrorism and the price of gold. I was right, way back then.

Now, I have no idea what is going to happen next. My hunches are all over the place, between financial Armageddon and the Singularity!

twv

N.B. Pictured are three Google maps of the area in Jefferson County where I lived at the time. Circled in red are where the offices of Liberty magazine were listed with the Post Office (the Polk Street apartment building I lived in) and (at bottom) they were actually located, on top of the hill. One of my first jobs for Bill Bradford, Liberty’s publisher, in my first year or two working for him, was Community Plenipotentiary. That is, I would get involved in community activism so he would not have to! Yes, he paid me to do this sort of thing. Thankfully, it did not take up much of my time, and arguably I did it on my own time. I was not being paid by the hour.

A Conjecture

Maybe because my aesthetic tastes are so resolutely minority (or ultra-minority), I have never been inclined — even before I developed any political opinions to speak of — to seek to prohibit the publication, exhibition or performance of any work of art on “community standards” or even moral grounds. Could it be that those people with more standard, popular tastes, are precisely those most likely to leap to censorship or even boycott pressure to squelch art or ideas they do not like, simply because the commonality of their tastes suggests to them the power of majority opinion, and thus the likelihood of success?

IMG_2025And could we be witnessing the loudest crowing for abridgements of free speech (“hate speech is not free speech!”) from college campuses and media enclaves for reasons of this very principle? Universities and Hollywood and major media are de facto intellectual bubbles, self-selected (as well as pressure-driven by intranigent minorities) to enforce ideological ideologial uniformity . . . and thus the perception of majority taste. Leading, in turn, to the current anti-free speech mania.

Well, it’s a theory. A conjecture.

I advance it, in part, to explain why illiberal ideas take form and grow. Perhaps they crystallize when there is too much cultural homogeneity.

Which, if true, would be the cream of the jest, since the current batch of illiberals are those progressives who yammer the most about “diversity.”

But, as is now widely known, they are not really interested in value diversity. They are interested in racial and sexual (OK: “gender”) diversity only. By sharing a value-dependent moral vision — not a transaction-based principled vision — they have developed a surprisingly strong sense of community, and use their commonality to enforce strong pressure to out-groups to conform to their in-group.

Even while, yes, preaching the doctrine of “inclusion.”

There is nothing about progressivism which does not give cause for sardonic laughter.

In this context, it has been a hoot to watch major media figures fall from grace over the issue of sexual harassment . . . and graver sexual misconduct. Call it Schadenfreude on my part. It is truly rich. Mainly, what we are seeing here is the purging from the Sanctimonious Classes eminent figures who, it turns out (and to only feigned surprise), had no good reason for self-righteousness, or any standing for righteousness at all.

I may be disturbed by the witch-huntery of mass boycott and social censure that sends the Weinsteins and Lauers and the like into the Outer Darkness — without trial or rules of evidence or much nuance about the acts actually mentioned — but to witness the celerity of the “punishment,” and its apparent extremity (no livelihood left for any of these? Really?), directed at people who have been so smugly censorious of others on these very grounds? Priceless.

When Patrick J. Buchanan declared a culture war, decades ago, I confess: I was not impressed. But he was right. (I know: “far right”! Ha ha.) We are now in full-out culture war on largely political grounds, and I have been thrown in with conservatives whose general approach to life (“there is no kill like overkill”) I have some basic difficulties with. But, though the conservative temper may be fear-based about cultural cohesion, and far too prone to the vices of rage and vindictiveness, progressive vices now seem more dangerous. I can live peacefully among conservatives. But would I be given any peace from progressives? I think not. They would love to tax and regulate me and those I know into conformity with their values. They would never cease to hector me for my disagreements with their dogmas. And their vices? Envy alone could destroy civilization, if it be entirely unleashed. Rage leads to warfare; envy to totalitarianism.

But of course, as I’ve said many times before, progressives in politics are the new conservatives in temper. It is they who rage against differences of opinion. It is they who scream at their ideological opponents and refuse to use reason in debate. It is they who join hands and use the social controls of boycott, shunning, shaming, and moralistic opprobrium to marginalize others.

So, how to attack them? Perhaps reason will not cut it — not to begin with, any way. They must learn that their basic values are not universally shared. That their tastes are not universal, and not written into the warp and woof of the universe.

Maybe, chastened, shown not to be as “open” to diversity as they had pretended, they will then listen to reason, and learn that the way to accommodate diversity is with the easy yoke of liberty and not the dead hand of the totalitarian state.

twv

IMG_2518

a question asked on Quora; my answer:

The level of incredulity about political and bureaucratic governance would almost certainly be astoundingly high. Mockery of those in government, and their major supporters, would make Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Samantha Bee blanch — and these denunciation “comedians” would act in earnest as what they truly are, conservatives in temper if not institutional preference.

Also, before a majority were reached, a tax revolt would likely usher in a crisis on a constitutional level. The federal government would be apt to undergo spasms of an amazing nature, something like we have not witnessed in our lifetimes.

And yet, the power of a squeaky wheel, an intransigent minority, is worth remembering.

If the libertarian majority remains culturally laid back and tolerant of the boorishness and rudeness and sheer crazed monomania of the statist minority, that seemingly likely revolt might not happen.

Right now, for example, less than a quarter of the population is progressive, and yet progressive institutions dominate. Indeed, they are seemingly impregnable. Even political conservatives, who ostensibly oppose progressives, contemplate thoroughgoing attacks upon progressive institutions only in the realm of wish and fantasy: they accomplish next to nothing. This makes their limited-government values mere velleities. Indeed, it seems clear to me: all conservatives really want is conscientious and responsible maintenance of society’s basic institutions, which just happen to be FDR/LBJ progressive in nature. Note that conservatives cannot now manage to muster the energy and intelligence to repeal the recently enacted Obama/Pelosi medical regulatory/subsidy institutions.

And yet the left freaks out over this — progressives have even called the Tea Party “anarchists.” The egregious Elizabeth Warren is the ninny, here, and a more absurd judgment could hardly be imagined. Leftists are so far out on whatever limb they have crawled onto that they see responsible maintenance of basic institutions as a threat to those institutions. It’s quite astounding.

But even more importantly, our conversation is still being driven by the cultural left, obsessed with issues regarding racism, sexism, and the like. Indeed, much of the current angst is the result of the popular revolt against “political correctness,” which most Americans think has gone way too far down the road to groupthink bullying.

So, who knows what would happen? It depends upon what form the ideas and proclivities a libertarian majority would take, and how they would relate to other habits of thought and action. If libertarians remain as quelled and squeamish as conservatives have been, and allow themselves to be serially betrayed by their spokespeople and representatives, as social conservatives have, then, well, progressives will continue to dominate.

There is no automatic unfolding of policy and constitutional order from an ideology. There is always that niggly matter of the difference between fantasy and reality.

I just hope, whatever libertarian ideas come to dominate, and whatever mores the new libertarian majority possesses, those future libertarians will not allow themselves to become as delusional as social conservatives and intersectional progressives have become.

twv

a questioned asked on Quora; my answer:

A number of times. But here is one obvious case, in what amounts to metaethics. Maybe I am misapplying the idea. You tell me.

What modern normative philosophers call “morality” — and what older philosophers might have designated as “the rules and standards of justice” — depends, in practice, upon widespread reciprocity. That is, there are prisoner’s dilemmas throughout situations of conflict and potential coöperation, and it makes sense for any individual to coöperate often only if others also approach such arenas of interaction with an open attitude, not flight or fight, much less with a hankering to steal.

It has been shown that a tit-for-tat strategy of reciprocity — which closely tracks many traditional notions of justice — leads to the most widespread success. But how can you trust “the other guy” to treat you fairly, justly, and not as predator to prey?

It takes more courage than many, many folks naturally possess to approach a potentially dangerous situation with a reserved reciprocity standard in mind. So, how do we steal ourselves to this? Indeed, how can we open ourselves to such attitudes before we gain the practical experience with the world to be confident that such strategies do in fact work, for both self and other, and over a long haul?

A number of religious ideas have helped. They differ from society to society, and we call them myths, and all or most seem obvious fictional. Made up. But the threat of a punishing Deity encourages some to curb their bloodlust and “defector” urges. The idea that we are all “equal before God” helps, too. And as a number of evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, the mere contemplation of a supernatural (nature-transcendent) or metaphysical (normal existence-transcendent) Being or even Principle signals both to self and others a willingness to transcend narrow ego-interests. Setting the stage for civilized coöperation.

This sort of thing often gets swept up under the rubric of “signaling.” But such signaling works regardless of reality. There may or may not be a God. Or natural rights. Or the categorical imperative. But even fictional ideas can be real in their effects.

I sometimes think of the advance of civilization as aided by a series of outrageous fictions.

Seems like the Thomas Theorem to me.

twv

Social Justice Lunatics

If ever we wondered how on earth a wide, once-learned culture could ever go whole hog for repression, tyranny, rage, murder, etc., we no longer need to. Just look at the faces of the young “activists” on college campuses. Cultism incarnate.

Smug self-righteousness in mob form.

These youngsters are worse than the traditionalists who scorned the hippies. The people who made me a “radical” when I was young. As if Hegel’s dialectic really were a thing, left has become right and right left; the cultural “radicals” (I hate to imply we take the same noösphere space) now exhibit the censorious traits of the cultural trads.

Yes, the new cultic leftism is really a form of conservatism (defending the institutionalized policies of the left, and then pushing for tyrannical advance of every last marginal gain through social controls like bullying, threats, mass boycott, shaming, and all the rest) combined with a self-image of radical chic “coolness.”

This is the age of the steely-eyed radical . . . with power.

One good thing about the Trump phenomenon is that these dangerous totalitarians have been dealt a firm kick in the pants.

They deserve many more.

twv

Nope Trump

 

 

The Moon at Apogee and Perigee

I began my interest in politics with a fascination with anarchism. It was how I reacted to the discontent and horrors of the Sixties and Seventies.

This early study put me in an ideal historical context to assess all forms of radical activism. How? Because the anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have been the least effective proselytizers of a cause in our time. They completely undermined their own dreams and ideals by engaging in “propaganda by the deed.”

Most such deeds — shootings, sabotage, bombings — amounted to anti-propaganda.

But earnestly done nevertheless.

Which brings us to the spectacle of radicals jumping off, willingly, their alleged high moral ground with stupid, indeed, utterly foolish actions (and writings) . . . allegedly for their cause.

Can I Punch Nazis?

So here we are, witnessing the lunatic Left immediately following apogee. That’s fine with me, but I guess I would prefer it if, somehow, these lunatics would break orbit and wander away from the home world.

In any case, to witness a whole movement in self-destructive behavior — committed to self-destructive behavior — is breathtaking. And it does suggest that radicalism tends to be dominated by (if not reserved for) the unhinged.

And the problem appears to be there with both Early and Late Adopters of a radical position.

twv

N.B. The photos of the Moon, above, show the sizes of the Earth’s smaller double at apogee and perigee.