Revenge of the Luddites

Posted on Reddit is this this excellent criticism of the attitude that “technology will save us”:

Not to shit on your comment or idea but it’s very typical that an absolutely avoidable situation presents itself (burning down the Amazon) and Redditors seem to shift the conversation to some pie in the sky idea that may or may not work.

Yeah, lab grown meat is a cool idea, but cattle farming is not going anywhere anytime soon. All that needs to happen is to crack down on the dickheads burning down our rainforests. Brazilians need to stand up to their president and the international stage needs to apply pressure.

Before we get lab grown meat, nuclear fusion, mcboatyface saving the ocean, Mars colonies, CRISPR editing out cancer in the embryo, bacteria eating carbon, cops with cameras on their pistols, bitcoin-esque online ledger based voting systems, et fucking cetera, can we PLEASE just make the easy simple legislative changes that have worked in the past and don’t require educating and convincing huge swaths of people on something they never heard of?

The way you get to futuristic ideas is not by waiting until the world is almost destroyed and hoping for a bandwagon. It’s always been little steps. Brazil is burning down rainforests. Unions in the US barely exist. China is running god damn concentration camps. There is value in pragmatism and I wish more people were passionate about things that might not seem as exciting as biofuel made from protozoa or whatever.

Outstanding comment, and you can think of much of the Hipcrime Vocab (especially the old site) as an extended argument of exactly that point. It’s nice to see I’m not totally alone on this. And there’s another good comment from a user called neoliberalaltright(!!!):

That aside, the point is that discussing lab grown meat is a distraction from a real solution that exists right now, and distractions of this form are often meant to avoid confronting the idea of any sociological responsibility that you might have.

Smoking was massively reduced in the United States through collective action and education, which has reduced preventable deaths. Suppose it were the 80s, and every time someone told me “smoking causes lung cancer” I said “well researchers are working on curing lung cancer”. Would that be a reasonable response? Sure, researchers are curing lung cancer, but people can stop smoking right now. Us talking about curing lung cancer doesn’t speed up curing lung cancer, while us talking about abstaining from smoking might get people to abstain from smoking. So why focus our discussions on the former?

And on a related note: Waymo CEO says true autonomous cars will never exist. Waymo is the self-driving car development arm of Alphabet (formerly known as Google). The headline is a little deceptive, because what he’s really saying is not that self-driving cars can’t be built (they already exist), but that there are always going to be inherent limitations in the technology that will prevent the extreme utopian visions of everyone having a 100% self-driving car from ever coming to fruition:

…the industry leader in self-driving cars last year announced that truly autonomous Level 5 vehicles – those that can operate in all conditions with no human input – “will never exist”...Speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live Conference on 13 Novemeber, 2018, [Waymo’s] CEO, John Krafcik, told the audience “autonomy will always have constraints”.

In the short and medium-term, it seems likely that cars will adopt smarter versions of the technology that’s already incorporated in current cars: lane assist, emergency braking, active cruise control. Beyond that, the next step will be small sections of highway that may allow hands-off driving for suitably connected cars. However, for those that dream of having a snooze or watching a movie while the car handles the stress of the daily commute, don’t hold your breath.

And, exactly as I predicted years ago: The world’s first solar road has turned out to be a colossal failure that’s falling apart and doesn’t generate enough energy, according to a report (Business Insider)

Before I quote from that article, I just thought I would post a comment I received in the original post about “SOLAR FREAKIN’ ROADWAYS!!!” all the way back in 2014. I’ve omitted where he quotes from my original post and kindly cleaned up all the typos and misspellings (guess they don’t teach composition anymore in engineering school). I’ve also highlighted some of the most delicious parts:

You don’t have any clue what you are talking about. None whatsoever.

A. Solar panel roadways already exist, water pipes are run under roads and they are used to heat up water.

B. No one is saying redoing all the roads that way. That is what is called a strawman argument.

C. The electrical grid is old, it is old because it fucking works. A transformer properly designed can have a +100 year lifespan. almost no moving parts, few chemical reactions, low physical stresses, simple design with few parts to fail. Of course you didn’t know this because in liberal arts school they didn’t teach it.

D. Electrical lines hung above ground suffer from less loses then those underground. Putting wires underground is due to space concerns and because the cost of maintaining them exceeds the expected cost of power losses. In most new communities they are buried underground.

E. Putting panels on people’s roofs means multiple owners vs a road which involves one owner. It also means economies of scale.

F. I am not going to even respond at your crap on self-driving cars you are not in any way qualified to talk about. Go out and get a degree in EE or CS and then we shall chat.

People like you are always standing in the way of progress. Your intellectual ancestor was probably busy rambling about how fire doesn’t work and eating raw meats huddling for warmth was better. Damn Luddites

The world isn’t falling apart you just cant stand the fact that random brats aren’t consultant on important decisions so you project your own failures on the world. You walk around with a prophet complex screaming how the sky is falling instead of accepting the cold truth “the world is fine, it is my life that has failed”

But no worries you will read this and get mad but within an hour you will have forgotten and will resume your posts explaining to the world how you are right about everything and it is the world that is wrong.

And now, onto our story:

Solar roads were promised to be one of the biggest unprecedented revolutions of our time, not just in the field of renewable energy but in the energy sector generally. Covering 2,800 square meters, Normandy’s solar road was the first in the world, inaugurated in 2016, in Tourouvre-au-Perche, France.

Despite the hype surrounding solar roads, two years after this one was introduced as a trial, the project has turned out to be a colossal failure — it’s neither efficient nor profitable, according to a report by Le Monde.

The unfortunate truth is that this road is in such a poor state, it isn’t even worth repairing. Last May, a 100-meter stretch had deteriorated to such a state that it had to be demolished. According to Le Monde’s report, various components of the road don’t fit properly — panels have come loose and some of the solar panels have broken into fragments.

On top of the damage and poor wear of the road, the Normandy solar track also failed to fulfill its energy-production goals. The original aim was to produce 790 kWh each day, a quantity that could illuminate a population of between 3,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. But the rate produced stands at only about 50% of the original predicted estimates. In its second year, the energy production level of the road further dwindled and the same downward trend has been observed at the beginning of 2019, indicating serious issues with efficiency.

Even rotting leaves and thunderstorms appear to pose a risk in terms of damage to the surface of the road. What’s more, the road is very noisy, which is why the traffic limit had to be lowered to 70 kmh.

What about the solar roadways in the United States?

Another solar road suffered a similar fate in the US. There were concerns, according to Daily Caller, that as the panels wouldn’t be tilted to follow the sun and would often be covered by cars during periods when the sun was out, the whole project would be completely inefficient.

Despite costing up to roughly $6.1 million, the solar road became operational in 2016 — 75% of the panels were broken before being installed, it doesn’t generate any energy, it can’t be driven on, and 83% of its panels are broken, according to Daily Caller. One electrical engineer even went as far as describing it as a “total and epic failure” in an interview with KXLY news. Even if it had been functional, the panels would have been able to power only a small water fountain and the lights in a restroom, according to Daily Caller.

Wanna chat now, anonymous? Who doesn’t know what they’re talking about now, bitch? I guess I don’t need to get that engineering degree after all. (sorry, I just couldn’t resist!). Score one for the “damn Luddites.”

Too bad that anonymous commenter will probably never read this.

UPDATE: Here’s Lloyd Alter’s coverage on Treehugger saying pretty much the same things.

Against Against Against Billionaire Philanthrocapitalism

Slate Star Codex has recently published a full-throated defense of modern Neofeudalism.

This whole essay is ridiculous, so insipid, so misleading, so pedantic, and so maddeningly idiotic, that I just can’t help but respond to it point-by-point. It’s also so chock full of false arguments, irrelevancies, red-herrings, and straw-man arguments, that one would think that the self-proclaimed masters of “logic and reason” over there would be ashamed to publish it.

Now, if you don’t know, Slate Star Codex is big part of the whole Neoliberal online thought collective that masquerades as “officially nonpartisan enlightened centrismTM. But in this rather poorly thought-out post, the mask is ripped off for all to see. And it’s not pretty.

It’s a classic example of a prolific genre I like to call “Neoliberal contrarianism.” One of the most prodigious practitioners of this genre is Megan McArdle, who has built an entire career on it (sponsored by the usual suspects). Other notable practitioners of the genre include David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Tyler Cowen, Sam Harris, and many others. All of Stephen Pinker’s recent books can be considered an exercise in this genre.

So, for example, this genre will tell you why the middle class is better off today than ever before, and is, in fact, getting richer every day! Why wages are actually going up. Why it’s just a silly myth that all of the gains in the economy are going to the top ten percent of households. Why housing is actually more affordable than ever. Why high health care costs, expensive drugs and copays are actually good for us. Why student debt isn’t a big problem. Why massive transnational corporations and monopolies are the greatest thing ever! In short, why everything you see happening around you every day isn’t really happening. And they’ve got the graphs and charts to prove it!

And they’ll usually tell you all this from some exotic destination where they’ve traveled to to on holiday, because they’re citizens of the world, after all, and national borders are anachronisms for poor losers who can’t handle change. How can they afford that, you ask? Well, being a shill for Neoliberalism has it’s perks, and it beats having to work for a living.

Anyway, the post references some articles mildly critical of billionaire philanthrocapitalism. But after reading the whole article, it doesn’t really seem to address the central arguments at all. And those arguments I get primarily from Anand Giridharadas’ excellent book on the subject entitled, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Saving the World. The post doesn’t reference that book—nor any of the the fundamental arguments it makes—anywhere in the article, as far as I can tell.

Giridharadas characterizes the benevolence of the transnational plutocratic class as instances of “extreme taking followed by extreme giving.” What does he mean by that?

He means that the people who have anointed themselves as the “saviors” of the human race are ultimately also the same ones who are responsible for bringing the world to the brink of disaster in the first place. Here’s Giridharadas speaking about being invited to canape-filled “ideas” conferences in Aspen where the plutocrats got together to hobnob and make connections:

“They would meet these four times [a year in Aspen]. They would read Plato and Aristotle; they would also read Gandhi, and they would also read—and this was a bit of a clue—Jack Welch. And having read them, they would discuss this, and talk about how they could make more of a difference, give back, not just run their companies, but do something more.”

“I was invited into this thing—I’m obviously not a businessperson—but I was invited because they figured out that twenty businesspeople in a room is a recipe for human Ambien, so they decided [that in] every class, they would put a TV person, a writer an artist, some activist…so I was the Indian spice in my class…”

“It was a really interesting experience to have access to people that I don’t normally have access to, or talk to, or know. People who run an aviation repair business in Oklahoma—things like that. There are not people I meet in my life. And it was very interesting, and it was all about ‘We’re going to change the world’. ‘We’re going to get together and we’re going to solve the biggest problems of our time.’ ‘We’re going to fight inequality; we’re going to advance injustice [sic]’….”

“And as I got deeper and deeper into that world, it started to dawn on me…that the same people who gathered in Aspen, when you actually dug a little bit into what they did in their day jobs, were the people causing the problems they were trying to solve. They were the bankers who had caused the 2008 meltdown around the world, now talking about how to increase housing justice. They were the people who sell soft drinks to kids that foreshorten their lives and give them diabetes and all these other conditions, talking about health equity. They were the very people in Silicon Valley [who were] starting to compromise all of our privacy…[and] starting to frankly let their platforms be used as vessels for cyberwar on our electoral processes. That was happening, and they were letting it happen, because they didn’t want anything to get in the way of their growth—basically selling out democracy itself—and then they were coming to Aspen to talk about freedom.”

“And it just began to grate on me. I have to say, I was not alone. There were a bunch of people who started sitting in the back row, kind of complaining. It was all the people they shouldn’t have let in: the artists, the writers, the journalists—the mistakes. I don’t know if they do that anymore…”

Meaning Spotlight on Anand Giridharadas (YouTube)

Another point he takes aim at is the idea of “doing well by doing good.” This refers to the idea that the best way to change to world is to get rich and make a fortune. Not only that, but that the richer they get, the better off the world will be. In other words, a “win-win” situation as they like to call it. For the plutocrats change is good—so long as it doesn’t threaten their obscene wealth and profits in the slightest. This means that, no matter how much they supposedly “help”, they make damn sure that many options are off the table from the start (like paying higher tax rates or closing offshore tax loopholes, for instance). After all, since the more money they make means that the world is a better place, by the same rationale, if they make even slightly less money, then the world must therefore become a worse place for everyone! Here’s Giridharadas again, describing the “Summit at Sea”—a networking event with 3,000 entrepreneurs on a cruise ship to the Bahamas:

“They were—almost to the person—all entrepreneurs. Like, none of them worked (some worked for big companies, but that was not the majority. More of the speakers maybe worked for Apple, or things like that). Entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs convinced that every dollar they make is making the world better by ten dollars. That they are almost these sort of Christ-like business figures, who are sacrificing by making money, and helping others on this scale. ‘It’s my cupcake company that’s going to help girls in Afghanistan.’ ‘You buy these shoes, and we will put a shoe on some other foot in some other country that you’ll never be able to verify’…and everybody on that boat shared that ideology…”

“What was so fascinating was the way in which all these things come together in this religion: making money, promoting yourself, making the world a better place. Win-win. One way to think about Winners Take All is an attempt to fire a lot of ammunition at the fraudulent idea of win-win. Of doing well by doing good. Of this idea of making the world a better place that tells rich people and corporations that nothing has to change for them to improve the state of the world. That you can somehow, in a town like this, [you can] empower workers—give them more money, whatever—without that ever coming at the expense of the people who own the companies.”

And another point he makes is, “Why do we expect that the people best equipped to solve the world’s problems are the ones who are disproportionately causing the world’s problems in the first place?” How did they cause those problems, you ask? Offshoring labor, profiting off the global race to the bottom (wage arbitrage), financialization and asset stripping, reckless speculation, hiding money in offshore accounts, dodging taxes with fancy accounting schemes, running brutal sweatshops in the Third World (or the First World if you’re Amazon), union-busting, working your employees half to death, fighting minimum wage increases, gouging consumers with usurious interest rates and bogus charges, spying on us and selling our online personal information to the highest bidder, deceitful advertising, peddling foods laden with salt, fat, sugar, and other addictive chemicals, lobbying politicians all over the globe for lax regulations and low taxes, bankrolling sock-puppet politicians, shaking down hard-up local governments for corporate welfare, lobbying, driving locally-owned business into bankruptcy, polluting the environment, overharvesting endangered natural resources, enclosing the commons—the list is almost endless, and could fill an entire book by itself. All in a day’s work.

Or, as a shorthand, we could say, Neoliberalism.

CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978. Typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time (Economic Policy Institute)

So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

Points 1 & 2 fall into the “hurt billionaire feelings” category. How dare you be so “uncivil” to these lovely, benevolent plutocrats! This is sort of like the common argument, ‘We can’t expect billionaires to respect the law or pay taxes, because then they’ll just move somewhere else!’ This neglects the unfortunate fact that by allowing billionaire plutocrats to wield such disproportionate power and influence in the first place, they can hold essential functions of state hostage to their very whim. And that’s a good thing?

Here’s an example of how desperate, weak and ridiculous the arguments are right off the bat:

#1 Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe?

Well, presumably the former, because it’s an example of a rich plutocrat seizing power normally attributed to state and municipal governments, and coming with significant strings attached. That is, the former is an effect of billionaires deliberately inserting themselves into public policymaking and trying to shape it to their own ends and preferences. It also raises very important questions, such as why schools are so desperately revenue-starved that they need to accept handouts from “benevolent” plutocrats in the first place. It also affects the lives of thousands of American citizens.

The latter was just, well, buying stuff. People do that every day. Why would that even be newsworthy, since it doesn’t affect anyone else? (except, I assume, his immediate neighbors)

Some teachers’ unions have made corporate taxation a part of the debate over school cuts: the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers talks about the decline in taxation of Minnesota’s largest corporations (“Thirty years ago, Bancorp, EcoLab, Travelers Insurance, 3M and Target were taxed at 13.6 percent. That rate has been cut to 9.8 percent. Wells Fargo paid $15 million less in 2014 than they paid in 1990, when the tax rate was 12 percent. In 2014, 10 corporations paid $31 million less than they did in earlier periods”) and explicitly connects those tax giveaways to the budgetary shortfalls that harm the city’s kids.

It’s not enough that corporations give back some of that money in the form of charitable donations: those donations always come with strings attached, shaping curriculum and activities to the priorities of corporate benefactors, and the funding can be withdrawn any time our public schools do work that cuts against the corporate agenda.

US tax shortfalls have our public schools begging for donations (BoingBoing)

So the question is utterly nonsensical on its face. We’re getting really desperate here and we’re only on point #1.

#2 If attacks on billionaire philanthropy decrease billionaires’ donations, is that acceptable collateral damage in the fight against inequality?

In other words, how dare you criticize our benevolent plutocratic overlords—they might take their money and go home! In other words, bald-faced extortion.

Suppose Jeff Bezos is watching how people treat Bill Gates, and changes his own behavior accordingly. Maybe in the best possible world, when people attack Gates’ donations, Bezos learns that people don’t like ruthless billionaires, decides not to be ruthless like Gates was, and agrees to Bernie Sanders’ demand that he increase his employees’ pay by $4/hour. But Bezos also learns people criticize billionaires’ philanthropy especially intensely, decides not to be charitable like Gates was, and so ten million people die. You’ve just bought an extra $4/hour for warehouse workers, at the cost of ten million lives.

Wow. Just…wow.

So, if Bezos has to pay his workers a reasonable wage, then people will die???!!  How about we make them give away this money? If only society had some sort of mechanism **cough, taxes, cough** to do that. Oh well.

Doesn’t this logic just reinforce the dangers of allowing private government by whim?

So, really, it’s kind of like the following argument: if we dare criticize droit de seigneur, what happens if the lords lay down their arms and refuse to defend our kingdom? We might get raided, and someone might get get hurt. We have no choice to comply with their every dictate. Please, sire, take my betrothed’s maidenhead, with my full blessing. And let me bend the knee and kiss your ring, besides, Milord. (yes, I’m aware this rite was a myth, but the example still holds).

And by the way, you can criticize the government’s policies and priorities without the fear that the government will just up and decide to stop paying for essential services one day in a huff like Achilles quitting the battlefield to sulk in his tent. In fact, such criticism and debate is an essential part of the process. Not so, apparently, with billionaire benevolence, which is dependent on appeasing their fragile egos and a sufficient amount of grovelling. Which flows directly into the next point:

#3 How much gratitude vs. scrutiny do billionaire donors get?

This is a weird one. Here, he does some kind of Twitter search, and finds that public opinion is sometimes disproportionately hostile to these trickle-down “gifts” that come with strings attached. Rather than take that as a sign of some sort of “wisdom of the crowd”, he just sort of handwaves it off.

[As a side note, this whole notion of the so-called “wisdom of crowds” is very selectively applied by Neoliberals. When it confirms what they want it to, it clearly demonstrates the “wisdom” of the crowd, as opposed to fallible individuals. But when popular opinion goes against their Neoliberal belief system, or for socialistic ideas, then it suddenly becomes just the ignorant rabble acting “irrationally” and desperately in need of enlightenment by the “rational” Neoliberals (typically in the form of copious charts and graphs – after all, who are you going to believe, us or your own lying eyes?)]

Although some donors like Bill Gates are generally liked, others, like Zuckerberg and Bezos, are met with widespread distrust.

Besides, well, who cares? How is any of this relevant at all? I mean, at all? Again, pretty weak tea from the self-appointed supreme masters of “logic and rationality.”

Now we get to the good stuff. Here, he lists a very common argument by critics:

#4 Since billionaires have complete control over their own money, they are helping society the way they want, not the way the voters and democratically-elected-officials want. This threatens democracy. We can solve this by increasing taxes on philanthropy, so that the money billionaires might have spent on charity flows back to the public purse instead.

Well, that’s a little distorted: we’re not taxing philanthropy, we’re taxing wealth. Not sure why the misstatement here. Is it deliberate? But, anyway, all that sounds pretty reasonable. How are you going to argue against that?

Now, here’s where things really start getting pretty fucking ridiculous. As you knew would happen, he lists chapter and verse of all the good and worthy causes that benevolent billionaires have showered their (totally 100% fairly gotten) fortunes on:

Two of the billionaires whose philanthropy I most respect, Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, have done a lot of work on the criminal justice reform. The organizations they fund determined that many innocent people are languishing in jail for months because they don’t have enough money to pay bail; others are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit because they have to get out of jail in time to get to work or care for their children, even if it gives them a criminal record. They funded a short-term effort to help these people afford bail, and a long-term effort to reform the bail system.

If Moskovitz and Tuna’s money instead flowed to the government, would it accomplish the same goal in some kind of more democratic, more publically-guided way? No. It would go to locking these people up, paying for more prosecutors to trick them into pleading guilty, more prison guards to abuse and harass them. The government already spends $100 billion – seven times Tuna and Moskovitz’s combined fortunes – on maintaining the carceral state each year

And where, exactly does that carceral state come from, after all? Why do we have it in the first place? Oh yeah, that’s right, to defend the property of the rich and powerful. But, aside from that, certainly the good works of these two individuals must more than  make up for the unapologetic ratfuckery perpetrated by the rest of the plutocratic billionaire class against the rest of us, no?

“Corporations that run prisons continue to protect their profit margins in less illegal and more insidious ways. These corporations stand to make more money when more people are sentenced to prison, so they work hard to influence policy and push for harsher sentencing laws.

A report from the Justice Policy Institute details how prison corporations use lobbyists, campaign contributions, and relationships with policymakers to further their own political agenda. For instance, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the US, has spent $17.4 million on lobbying expenditures in the last 10 years and $1.9 million on political contributions between 2003 and 2012.

In 2013, the CCA and another major prison company, the GEO Group, also funded lobbying efforts to stop immigration reform, killing the path to legal status for over 11 million undocumented people in order to keep undocumented immigrants flowing into their facilities, as well as securing increased congressional funding to incarcerate those same people in for-profit prisons.”

Private prisons need to be made illegal. (Reddit)

But wait, there’s more!

Or take one of M&T’s other major causes, animal welfare. Until last year, California factory farms kept animals in cages so small that they could not lie down or stretch their limbs, for their entire lives. Moskovitz and Tuna funded a ballot measure which successfully banned this kind of confinement. It reduced the suffering of hundreds of millions of farm animals and is one of the biggest victories against animal cruelty in history.

If their money had gone to the government instead, would it have led to some even better democratic stakeholder-involving animal welfare victory? No. It would have joined the $20 billion – again, more than T&M’s combined fortunes – that the government spends to subsidize factory farming each year. Or it might have gone to the enforcement of ag-gag laws – laws that jail anyone who publicly reports on the conditions in factory farms (in flagrant violation of the First Amendment) because factory farms don’t want people to realize how they treat their animals, and have good enough lobbyists that they can just make the government imprison anyone who talks about it.

Highlighting opposition to ag-gag laws by a couple of Silicon Valley oligarchs is rich indeed, given that that the whole reason such laws exist in the first place is because of lobbying and corruption by wealthy agribusinesses and their socipathic billionaire allies! Somehow, I don’t think the average person is pushing for laws to prevent them from finding out how their own food is produced, do you?

How ALEC Has Undermined Food Safety By Pushing ‘Ag Gag’ Laws Across The Country (ThinkProgress)

“Ag-gag” laws — which ban the collection of evidence of wrongdoing on farms, from animal cruelty to food-safety violations — are a sterling example of how monopolism perpetuates itself by taking over the political process.

As American agribusiness has grown ever-more concentrated — while antitrust regulators looked the other way, embracing the Reagan-era doctrine of only punishing monopolies for raising prices and permitting every other kind of monopolistic abuse — it has been able to collude, joining industry groups like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts industry-favoring “model legislation” and then lobbies state legislatures to adopt it.

Court strikes down Iowa’s unconstitutional ag-gag law (BoingBoing)

And, of course, the underlying reason why monopoly laws have been abandoned, and why businesses all across industries have become increasingly concentrated, has a lot to do with the plutocrats’ wholesale purchase of the economics profession which has led to the pushing of Neoliberal and “Chicago School” policies via an unfathomably large constellation of universities, think-tanks, journals, publishing houses, magazines, online resources, etc., etc.

Kind of overwhelms all that philanthropy, doesn’t it?

Forgive me if I’m less than persuaded by this example of a couple of Facebook billionaires (and let’s not even get into how fucking sinister Facebook is). Help with one hand, hurt with the other. Or, as Giridharadas put it, extreme taking followed by extreme giving.

Here’s another howler:

George Soros donated/invested $500 million to help migrants and refugees. If he had given it to the government instead, would it have gone to some more grassroots migrant-helping effort?

No. It would have gone to building a border wall, building more camps to lock up migrants, more cages to separate refugee children from their families. Maybe some tiny trickle, a fraction of a percent, would have gone to a publicly-funded pro-refugee effort, but not nearly as much as would have gone to hurting refugees.

And how exactly did Trump come to power in the first place? Could it be millions and millions of dollars of Dark Money spent by plutocrats—the Mercer family in particular—as exhaustively documented in Jane Mayer’s indispensable and important book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right? Are these the policies of government, or rather the policies of one particularly heinous administration, one that has been installed and consistently backed by sociopathic members of the billionaire elite class since day one (such as FOX News, Sinclair broadcasting, Cambridge Analytica, et. al.)?

The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)

It’s the oldest trick in the book: elect horrible Republicans who do horrible things and then use it as proof as to just how horrible the government is. The solution? Private charity, of course!

So, the best system of government, according to SSC, is one in which the few “good” billionaires spend their money on defeating the laws written by, and for the benefit of, the other set of “evil” billionaires” who manipulate and control our government? So the “good” billionaires make up for the “evil” ones? It that seriously the argument here? Are you f*#king kidding me???

And this is supposed to be the ultra-rational “reason and logic” crowd. Apparently not when it comes to defending Neoliberalism. The causes these “good” billionaires are dedicated to fighting are all the ruinous consequences of the policies favored by the rest of the billionaire class who control the damn government in the first place! But let’s move on.

#5…but the US government is not a charity. Even when it’s doing good things, it’s not efficiently allocating its money according to some concept of what does the most good.

No, the U.S. government is not a charity, because it has to, you know, actually govern the fucking country! That’s kind of important, after all. It has a lot of things it must allocate money to (what’s called non-discretionary spending). That’s simply the nature of government—every government in the world.

Nevertheless, allocating more money to health and education would certainly do a lot of good, wouldn’t it? And what’s stopping that, I wonder? Hmmmm…

Oh yeah, I remember now: HOWYAGUNNAPAYFORIT? The one, single, magical word, the all-powerful incantation perennially invoked by the plutocrats and their media lackeys that assures that the government cannot, and will never, ever, be able to adequately address the pressing problems facing the American people today. And where, I wonder, does this ubiquitous phrase originate? Outer space? The American people themselves? After all, no one seems to be asking that of the private charities we’ve been discussing. No, government alone seems to be under that restriction (and only in areas that don’t directly benefit the plutocrats’ bottom line).

No, I have a sneaking suspicion that it ultimately originated from those same “benevolent” Neoliberal billionaire overlords who are getting their dicks sucked by this SSC essay.

Bill Gates saved ten million lives by asking a lot of smart people what causes were most important. They said it was global health and development causes like treating malaria and tuberculosis. So Gates allocated most of his fortune to those causes. Gates and people like him are such a large fraction of philanthropic billionaires that by my calculations these causes get about 25% of billionaire philanthropic spending.

The US government also does some great work in those areas. But it spends about 0.9% of its budget on them. As a result, one dollar given to a billionaire foundation is more likely to go to a very poor person than the same dollar given to the US government, and much more likely to help that person in some transformative way like saving their life or lifting them out of poverty. But this is still too kind to the US government. It’s understandable that they may want to focus on highways in Iowa instead of epidemics in Sudan

Yes it is understandable, because the people of the United States presumably elect representatives to the government of the United States to solve problems faced by the citizens of the United States, and not those faced by Sudan. Presumably, the people who live in Sudan elect representatives to deal the problems faced by Sudan. But, remember, in Neoliberal world, nation-states are so passé.

I mean, can you get more stupid than this? Here’s what really stopped that spending: extreme taking:

We had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance universal health care, benefitting many millions of uninsured Americans, saving lives, staving off bankruptcies, and indeed saving public dollars that would otherwise be devoted to emergency-room care. We had a means of helping to pay for it by a slight alteration in a tax break used by the most well-off—and, undoubtedly, the most generously insured—members of society. Yet the collective leadership of American philanthropy—a leadership, by the way, that had been with few exceptions silent about the redistribution of wealth upward through the Bush tax cuts, silent about cuts in social programs, silent about the billions of dollars spent on the wars of the last decade—found its voice only when its tax exemption was threatened, and preferred to let the government go begging for revenue elsewhere, jeopardizing the prospects for health-care reform, in order to let rich, well-insured people go on shielding as much of their money as possible from taxation.

… What that situation made plain to me was not just that philanthropy is quite capable of acting like agribusiness, oil, banks, or any other special-interest pleader when it thinks its interests are jeopardized. It helped me to see that however many well-intentioned and high-minded impulses animate philanthropy, the favorable tax treatment that supports it is a form of privatization. Money that would otherwise be available for tax revenue that could be democratically directed is shielded from public control for private use.

Democracy and the Donor Class (Democracy Journal)

…Yet even on issues vital for the safety of the American people, the government tends to fail in surprising ways. How much money does the US government spend fighting climate change?

Well, presumably not as much as it could be spending, given that large numbers of corporations are spending staggering amounts of cash to prevent the Green New Deal sponsored by Democrats from ever becoming law. But never mind that salient fact, since SSC is a Neoliberal site, this just gives it some more ammunition to bash the “incompetent” government. And why is government spending so low?

The Green New Deal is a loose set of ambitious goals outlined in a nonbinding resolution that calls for a global goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — but no policy specifics on how to get there. It is also an economic plan, which calls for massive federal investment, enhancing the social safety net, and millions of new jobs to overhaul the energy and infrastructure industries in the U.S

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced last month that he would put the resolution authored by New York Democratic freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., up for a vote. Republicans are trying to elevate the freshman lawmaker, who has described herself as a democratic socialist, and her ideas as emblematic of the Democratic Party going into 2020.

“In recent months our nation has watched the Democratic Party take a sharp and abrupt left turn toward socialism,” McConnell said earlier this month. “A flawed ideology that has been rejected time and again across the world is now driving the marquee policy proposals of the new House Democratic majority, and nothing encapsulates this as clearly as the huge, self-inflicted, national wound the Democrats are agitating for called the Green New Deal.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also started using Ocasio-Cortez in attack ads similar to the way the party campaigns have run against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for years. In a recent tweet attacking Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who is considering a run against Republican Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC said Castro “votes with AOC 94% of the time.” Castro is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. House Republican candidates are also using Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal in attack ads, like this one released Monday by former Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga., who lost in 2018 and is seeking a rematch for a suburban Atlanta district.

https://www.npr.org/2019/03/26/705897344/green-new-deal-vote-sets-up-climate-change-as-key-2020-issue

But it’s “government” (and NOT Republicans, mind you) that is bad. Riiight….As SSC points out:

In 2017, the foundation of billionaire William Hewlett (think Hewlett-Packard) pledged $600 million to fight climate change. One gift by one guy was almost twice the entire US federal government’s yearly spending on climate issues.

Gee, I wonder why that might be? SSC is gnomically silent. I guess government is just “bad”, amirite? It can’t possibly have anything to do with the bottomless pits of money fighting against any kind of environmental regulations, could it? And where, pray tell, might all that money be coming from? China? The moon? Martians?

I wish I could give a more detailed breakdown of how philanthropists vs. the government spend their money, but I can’t find the data. Considerations like the above make me think that philanthropists in general are better at focusing on the most important causes.

Of course they make you think that, because that’s the foregone conclusion you were heading to all along.

How government spends its (discretionary) money is theoretically decided by the American people themselves. But we’ve seen time and time again that the preferences of the average voter don’t matter one whit; only those of the donor class do. The very same donor class giving away all this wonderful charity money to poor people in Sudan, or helping animals, or whatever.

And, by the way, I’m sure SSC is taking into account how many people are saved from poverty by Social Security, and how many seniors are alive today because of Medicare, and so forth when it does it’s accounting of “ineffective” government versus “effective”private charities (that’s sarcasm by the way, folks).

#6 I realize there’s some very weak sense in which the US government represents me. But it’s really weak. Really, really weak. When I turn on the news and see the latest from the US government, I rarely find myself thinking “Ah, yes, I see they’re representing me very well today.”

Yet more Neoliberal government-bashing. Are you sensing a pattern here?

Well, he’s not alone—a lot of people think that, after all. But, once again, I’m left wondering, why on earth might that be??? Once again, SSC is mysteriously silent on this issue. Government must just inherently be “bad” and “ineffective” like the Neoliberals have been constantly telling us all along, right? Right???

New Data Shows Donor Class Does Not Accurately Represent Diversity and Policy Views of American Voters (Demos)

Political donors in the US are whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than voters (Vox)

Who really matters in our democracy — the general public, or wealthy elites? That’s the topic of a new study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern. The study’s been getting lots of attention, because the authors conclude, basically, that the US is a corrupt oligarchy where ordinary voters barely matter…

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

America functions as an oligarchy, not as a democracy (TYWKIWDBI)

“Economic elites and organized groups representing business,” eh? You mean, those same folks that SSC is busy bootlicking because of all the oats that are coming out of their asses to feed the hungry sparrows? Those guys?

Bill Gates has an approval rating of 76%, literally higher than God. Even Mark Zuckerberg has an approval rating of 24%, below God but still well above Congress. In a Georgetown university survey, the US public stated they had more confidence in philanthropy than in Congress, the court system, state governments, or local governments; Democrats (though not Republicans) also preferred philanthropy to the executive branch.

Okay, so earlier we dismissed popular opinion on Twitter; now we’re using popular polls to boost our case. Facts and logic!

Besides, what does the popularity of billionaire plutocrats, who have massive PR organizations at their disposal, matter at all? And how much can such polls be trusted? After all, who owns the media? Oh, yeah, that’s right, the plutocrats themselves!! (BTW that Bill Gates is more popular than God ought to scare the shit out of anyone, even Neoliberals).

These 15 Billionaires Own America’s News Media Companies (Forbes)

Also, given that Big Business and sociopathic plutocrats have been waging an unremitting, fifty-year+ total war on “Big Government” using every resource available to them, I wonder if that might influence those poll numbers. But, in SSC’s world, that doesn’t exist, apparently.

When I see philanthropists try to save lives and cure diseases, I feel like there’s someone powerful out there who shares my values and represents me. Even when Elon Musk spends his money on awesome rockets, I feel that way, because there’s a part of me that would totally fritter away any fortune I got on awesome rockets. I’ve never gotten that feeling when I watch Congress. When I watch Congress, I feel a scary unbridgeable gulf between me and anybody who matters. And the polls suggest a lot of people agree with me.

It speaks volumes about Slate Star Codex (and the whole essay in general) that he sees people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos “representing him” when they “fritter away” billions of dollars on rocketships to Mars for themselves and their 1% pals. I could practically end the essay right here and now. As for me, I don’t feel that way; I feel exactly the same as Gil Scott-Heron in Whitey on the Moon. And while I’m guessing the average SSC reader is firmly ensconced in the former camp, seeing themselves as being on the winning side of the billionaries’ velvet rope, I’m willing to bet statistically that the majority of people feel more like I do (as indeed they should).

And, as a matter of fact, I do feel that politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and AOC represent me (even if they don’t literally represent me since I don’t reside in their states), moreso than Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg (whom I can’t vote for, either). I wish we had more politicians  like them. Note, also, that none of those politicians above are billionaires, or are funded by billionaire sugar daddies.

#7 Shouldn’t people who disagree with the government’s priorities fight to change the government, not go off and do their own thing?

Well, the plutocrats have already spent countless billions of dollars changing the government—they just changed it for their own advantage, and to the detriment of everybody else. They’re also spending billions of dollars to make sure it stays that way.

The money spent on lobbying is conspicuously absent from this article. Extreme taking followed by extreme giving. But the taking part is never mentioned. It’s like it doesn’t exist.

Then, SSC launches into some bizarre analogy between the democratically-elected U.S. government and the Church of Scientology (?) that makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. They’re really grasping at straws here. I guess “facts and logic” don’t matter so much after all when you’re slinging the shit for Neoliberalism. Seriously, go there and read for yourself just how bizarre this is.

Also, do you realize how monumental a task “reform the government” is? There are thousands of well-funded organizations full of highly-talented people trying to reform the government at any given moment, and they’re all locked in a tug-of-war death match reminiscent of that one church in Jerusalem where nobody has been able to remove a ladder for three hundred years

“Do I realize how monumental a task ‘reforming the government’ is?”

Well, no I don’t, but I know some folks who do. Their names are Charles and David Koch, and they know exactly what it takes to “reform” the government, since they’ve doing exactly that over the last forty-odd years, and they’ve largely succeeded in their task. And there are many more like them: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, The Federalist Society, etc.—far too many to name or count. We’ve encountered quite a few of them already.

And if you don’t think that the government has been “reformed”—exclusively for the benefit of the Chamber of Commerce and the investor/ownership class, mind you—then you are clearly a simpering idiot, and no one should pay any attention to anything you have to say ever again.  The “ladder” has indeed moved, just for the benefit of certain people, exclusively.

Incidentally, another guy who has some idea of what it takes is named Bernie Sanders. Why, I wonder, have these benevolent billionaires not donated one solitary cent to him (but have donated to more status-quo-favoring Democratic candidates and Republicans – mostly to Republicans). In fact, not only have they not donated anything to him, they are almost unanimous in their opposition to his very candidacy, as Bernie himself has proudly acknowledged.

9. Does billionaire philanthropy threaten pluralism?

I really don’t understand this one. This isn’t really a common argument against depriving the government of revenue in favor of private charity with strings attached; SSC just seems to include it for no other reason that to include an argument which can be easily dismissed. Sort of “Washington Generals” argument, I guess. It does give us this gem, however:

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsors research into mental health uses of psychedelic drugs. You might have heard of them in the context of their study of MDMA (Ecstasy) for PTSD being “astoundingly” successful. They’re on track to get MDMA FDA-approved and potentially inaugurate a new era in psychiatry. This is one of those 1000x opportunities that effective altruists dream of. The government hasn’t given this a drop of funding, because its official position is that Drugs Are Bad.

Wow, using psychedelic research to justify private charity? That’s some next-level chutzpah right there! That’s killing your parents and begging the court for clemency because you’re an orphan.

Again, why, exactly, does the government (in the U.S.) believe that “Drugs are Bad?” SSC doesn’t say. Certainly the American people themselves don’t believe that, especially not with efforts towards decriminalization and legalization taking place all over the country (not to mention the enthusiastic drug use by citizens themselves!). So who exactly does believe that?

Well, we know that psychedelics were legal at one point. We also know that Nixon administration officials have since freely admitted that they were criminalized expressly to go after and eviscerate the anti-war movement and civil rights campaigns. And the Nixon administration was hardly an enemy of the plutocratic class; rather, he was following the dictates of the Powell Memorandum almost to a tee.

And now that bald, naked attempt at smashing the Left in this country is being used as a rationale for starving the government of funds and relying on the charity of unaccountable billionaire plutocrats? As I said, next-level chutzpah!

Or: in 2001, under pressure from Christian conservatives, President Bush banned federal funding for stem cell research. Stem cell scientists began leaving the US or going into other area of work. The field survived thanks to billionaires stepping up to provide the support the government wouldn’t…

This one is even more outrageous. Unlike the Drug War, where the blame can be spread around between both parties, this one is exclusively a product of one single branch of one single party: the radical Fundamentalist Evangelical Republicans. Ironically the same ones who reliably run on a platform of how “ineffective” the government is, how taxes are “theft,” how we need to “cut spending”, how poor people are “lazy,” etc., etc.

Or: despite controversy over “government funding of Planned Parenthood”, political considerations have seriously limited the amount of funding the US government can give contraceptive research. It was multimillionaire heiress Katharine McCormick who funded the research into what would become the first combined oral contraceptive pill.

Ummm, are you seeing a pattern here, folks? Because SSC sure doesn’t.

Aren’t these really just arguments for the Republican Party being banished from ever holding the levers of power at any time in this country?

This point is partly addressed by the next bullet point:

9. Aren’t the failures of government just due to Donald Trump or people like him? Won’t they hopefully get better soon?

Sounds like a good argument. What could be wrong with this one?

My whole point is that if you force everyone to centralize all money and power into one giant organization with a single point of failure, then when that single point of failure fails, you’re really screwed.

Remember that when people say decisions should be made through democratic institutions, in practice that often means the decisions get made by Donald Trump, who was democratically elected…

“Democratically elected?” Er, no he wasn’t. He won because of the Electoral College. Only in the most pettifogging sense could he be considered “democratically elected.” And, thanks to gerrymandering and the concentration of the population into urban areas, less and less of our representatives are being “democratically elected” with every passing year. And let’s not even get into the fact of how much the election was influenced by foreign interference.

Also, the government isn’t a “single point of failure.” There are fifty state governments, plus D.C., plus United States territories. Every single one of them is being bled dry of necessary revenue because of the actions of venal billionaire plutocrats and legalized bribery. How many cities have built brand-new sparkling sports venues for privately-owned sports teams, even while cutting budgets for university systems, as was done here in Wisconsin? How much money has been shilled out as corporate welfare to private corporations, such as Foxconn (also here in Wisconsin). And how can we forget Jeff Bezos infamously playing cities against each other in order to get the biggest taxpayer-funded bonanza to secure his shiny new headquarters.

Shit like that is exactly what we’re taking about when we talk about the “extreme taking” part of the equation.

In fact, the actions of politically-active plutocrats like the Koch Brothers are concentrated even more intensely at the state level than at the Federal level. And they’re hardly absent from municipal politics either, fighting against widely-supported initiatives like minimum wage increases and mandatory sick leave which would benefit literally tens of thousands of struggling American citizens all over the country (sorry Sudan—you’re on your own).

But, hey, I’m sure that donation to the symphony will make up for it, eh?

Besides, even if the Federal government were a so-called “single point of failure” (which disproportionately tends to fail when Republicans are in charge), it also has vastly more resources to alleviate poverty and solve big problems than any private charity. And that includes a license to print money, if only we would let it. Er, I mean, if only they would let us.

In fact, we can do whatever we want. Money doesn’t grow on rich people.

This point is even made by SSC in the essay itself:

8. The yearly federal budget is $4 trillion. The yearly billionaire philanthropy budget is about $10 billion, 400 times smaller.

For context, the California government recently admitted that its high-speed rail project was going to be $40 billion over budget (it may also never get built). The cost overruns alone on a single state government project equal four years of all the charity spending by all the billionaires in the country.

Compared to government spending, Big Philanthropy is a rounding error. If the whole field were taxed completely out of existence, all its money wouldn’t serve to cover the cost overruns on a single train line.

So, charity spending by plutocrats is both more effective than taxes, and also insignificant. Which is it? (also, notice the subtle Neoliberal swipe at “wasteful” government spending on infrastructure. Classy!).

To a large extent, I would be far less hostile to efforts of private charity if they didn’t occur simultaneously with the constant, unremitting message pouring out from the billionaire class and their bought-and-paid-for corporate media shills that the United States is “broke” and cannot afford to pay for basic things like universal single-payer healthcare, free higher education, decarbonizing our energy infrastructure, or about a million other essential things that we’re told are “utopian” and simply “unaffordable” in a country that has more millionaires and billionaires than any other country on earth. But I don’t see that stopping anytime soon—in fact, it’s intensifying. Again, it bears repeating that the politicians who support these things (Sanders, AOC, et. al.) are vigorously opposed by this supposedly “benevolent” plutocrat class:

We could start with the 16 negative stories the [Washington] Post ran in 16 hours, and follow that up with the four different Sanders-bashing pieces the paper put out in seven hours based on a single think tank study.

Or you could take the many occasions on which the Post‘s factchecking team performed impressive contortions to interpret Sander’s fact-based statements as meriting multiple “Pinocchios”. In particular, we might observe the time the Post “factchecked” Sanders’ claim that the world’s six wealthiest people are worth as much as half the global population. It just so happens that one of those six multi-billionaires is [Jeff] Bezos, which would make an ethical journalist extra careful not to show favoritism.

Instead, after acknowledging that Sanders was, in fact, correct, the paper’s Nicole Lewis awarded him “three Pinocchios”—a rating that indicates “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” This is because, the paper explained, even though the number comes from a reputable nonpartisan source, Oxfam, which got its data from Credit Suisse, “It’s hard to make heads or tails of what wealth actually means, with respect to people’s daily lives around the globe.”

Here’s the Evidence Corporate Media Say Is Missing of WaPo Bias Against Sanders (FAIR)

Now, for the big conclusion, which is just as insipid as the rest of the post.

So you’re saying these considerations about pluralism and representation and so on justify billionaire philanthropy?

Is he saying that? After all that, I still can’t tell.

The Gates Foundation plausibly saved ten million lives. Moskovitz and Tuna saved a hundred million animals from excruciatingly painful conditions. Norman Borlaug’s agricultural research (supported by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation) plausibly saved one billion people.

That’s nice, but totally irrelevant to the point: extreme taking followed by extreme giving. It only looks at half of that equation, and totally ignores the other half, thus becoming a straw man argument.

How many people have died over the past half-century because of draconian debt repayments demanded by banks from indebted third-world countries? And who is responsible for that?

Does one cancel out the other? Do two wrongs make a right?

Besides, we could sling around factoids all day and sill not prove anything. How many lives have improved building codes (aka “evil” regulations) saved? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand? How about efficient municipal sanitation? Last time I checked, Flint still has lead in its drinking water. How about legally-required seat belts, which were fought against for years by big business (along with smoking prevention)?

Billionaire charity is filling a vacuum that should not be there in the first place.

I always have mixed feelings about the idea that news of the type “[Billionaire] donates to solve [horrific problem that should have been solved eons ago by officials]” because people should not be dependent on the generosity of the ultra-rich for basic human needs to be met. It reminds me of the time a local news program did a story on a girl who was selling ribbons and baked goods to raise money for cancer treatment that she needed and framed it as uplifting – “Look at this girl go!” That’s not uplifting, it’s a national disgrace that that girl receiving life saving medical treatment was dependent on how much she could fundraise.

Billionaire CEO makes $480,000 donation to Flint Community Schools for new water filtration systems (Reddit)

These accomplishments – and other similar victories over famine, disease, and misery – are plausibly the best things that have happened in the past century. All the hot-button issues we usually care about pale before them. Think of how valuable one person’s life is – a friend, a family member, yourself – then try multiplying that by ten million or a billion or whatever, it doesn’t matter, our minds can’t represent those kinds of quantities anyway. Anything that makes these kinds of victories even a little less likely would be a disaster for human welfare.

Agreed. Oh, and by the way, depriving governments of the necessary resources to save lives and improve the welfare of its citizens, and blocking desperately-needed social reforms that might slightly threaten profits, also makes these kinds of victories (more than) just a little less likely as well. And I also happen to believe that donating modest (for them) sums to the charities of their choice does not make up for the unrepentant  ratfuckery and skullduggery perpetrated by the one-percent billionaire elite class all over the world against the rest of us since the rise of Neoliberalism.

The researchers found that states that expanded Medicaid saw higher rates of enrollment and lower rates of uninsurance. Among the 55- to 64-year-olds studied, researchers found, receiving Medicaid “reduced the probability of mortality over a 16 month period by about 1.6 percentage points, or a decline of 70 percent.” Based on their findings, they estimate that states’ refusal to expand the program led to 15,600 additional deaths.

This is in line with a growing body of research that shows Medicaid expansion has not only vastly increased access to health insurance, but also improved health outcomes. About 13.6 million adults gained Medicaid coverage under Obamacare.

Study: the US could have averted about 15,600 deaths if every state expanded Medicaid (Vox)

In 2017, the Royal Society of Medicine said that government austerity decisions in health and social care were likely to have resulted in 30,000 deaths in England and Wales in 2015The rate of increase in life expectancy in England nearly halved between 2010 and 2017, according to research by epidemiology professor Michael Marmot. He commented that it was “entirely possible” that austerity was the cause and said: “If we don’t spend appropriately on social care, if we don’t spend appropriately on health care, the quality of life will get worse for older people and maybe the length of life, too.”

A paper released by the British Medical Journal in November 2017 estimated that the government austerity programme caused around 120,000 excess deaths since 2010. By 2018 figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) were showing a fall in life expectancy for those in poorer socioeconomic groups and those living in deprived areas, while average UK life expectancy had stopped improving. Public Health England was asked to carry out a review of life expectancy trends but government ministers said that the arguments put forward by some academics, that austerity had contributed to the change, could not be proved. ONS figures published in 2018 indicated that the slowdown in general life expectancy increase was one of the highest among a group of 20 of the world’s leading economies.

United Kingdom government austerity programme (Wikipedia)

Neoliberalism kills. Extreme taking followed by extreme giving, indeed. I wonder if SSC has an equal space in their heart for the people collapsing on the floors of Amazon warehouses from heat stroke and urinating in trash cans.

Probably not. Might reduce Bezos’ donations.

The main argument against against billionaire philanthropy is that the lives and welfare of millions of the neediest people matter more than whatever point you can make by risking them. Criticize the existence of billionaires in general, criticize billionaires’ spending on yachts or mansions. But if you only criticize billionaires when they’re trying to save lives, you risk collateral damage to everything we care about.

Well, I’m criticizing the billionaires for a hell of a lot more than that.

Here’s the thing: The argument is not—repeat NOT—that the wealthy shouldn’t donate some of their money to worthy causes. It never has been. That’s a straw man.

It’s criticizing the culture of extreme taking followed by extreme giving.

The argument is that they do this whilst at the same time as bending governments their will, dictating policy, blocking any kind of social reform, abusing and treating their own workers like human garbage, and spending unlimited funds blocking badly needed social reforms that would slightly inconvenience them or reduce their ungodly profits by even negligible amounts.

It’s also asserting that the cost of billionaires assuming the power to alter our world does, indeed, come at the expense of other equally pressing social needs.

It reminds me of the whole discussion surrounding golden rice. If you opposed handing poor farmers this genetically-modified rice produced by agribusiness corporations, you were a sociopathic monster who wanted children to go blind. But if you wanted to alter the economic system so that farmers could actually afford to purchase a variety of foods to ensure adequate nutrition—or even grow their own vitamin rich foods—well, then, you were a pie-in-the-sky utopian who didn’t understand economics.

To which I replied, if that’s the case well, then, fuck economics. Who is the real monster here???

The way I see it, the argument that private charity is “superior” than government at solving pressing social problems rests entirely on the fact that Big Business has gutted and undermined democratic governments around the world for at least the past fifty years.

They then turn around and use the subsequent failures of government as a justification for seizing ever-more of the commons for themselves and their corrupt, sheltered offspring.

And that, my friends, is the primrose path to Neofeudalism in a nutshell. It’s the Road to Serfdom, except this one is real and it’s happening right now, in front of our very eyes, not due to too much democracy, but too little.

I guess I have to repeat this over and over again until it sinks in: The plutocrats fund Trojan Horse candidates who undermine the viability of democratic governments at every opportunity, and have done for at least the last half-century. They then use the resulting “failures” and “ineffectiveness” of government as an argument and an excuse to hand them ever more power and control over society and its limited resources. Power which is accountable to no one. Resources which are theirs, and theirs alone. And this puerile, blatantly-biased, pathetically-reasoned joke of an essay by SSC is entirely in that vein. And it should put to rest any doubts that SSC isn’t an expressly political project designed to benefit the One Percent elites and catapult pure Neoliberal propaganda under the guise of “reason” and “enlightened centrismTM.”

SSC’s whole argument here basically boils down to this: better be kind to the billionaires, because it sure would be shame if anything happened to deprive those poor, suffering recipients of their largesse. I mean, you wouldn’t actually want to make this political, would you?

Basically a Mob shakedown. “Nice place you got here. Sure would be shame if anything happened to it. I and my associates can make sure that such an unfortunate thing doesn’t happen. Oh, and be sure to kiss my ring when you hand over the cash.”

And this is the best the vaunted “enlightened centrist” Neoliberal “fact and logic” crowd can do? The Neoliberals are seeing a global rebellion against their failed ideas everywhere they turn, and are getting increasingly scared and desperate. This is clearly a sign of that.

But, hey, at least their book reviews are good. Check out the latest on one of my personal favorites, Secular Cycles. The one of The Secret of Our Success is good too.

The Origin of Religion – Part 3

[Blogger note: I have apparently lost my USB drive, which contained all of my subsequent blog posts, thus, I’ll have to cut this short. I’ll try and finish this up using my recollection and some snippets lift on my hard drive]

In addition to what we spoke of before, there are several other “alternative” psychological ideas behind the origin and development of religion that the BBC article does not mention. Nonetheless, I feel these ideas are too important to be left out of the discussion. What follows is my summary below.

Terror Management Theory

Terror Management Theory (TMT) stems from a book written by psychotherapist Ernest Becker in 1973 called The Denial of Death. In it, he asserted that we invest in what are, in essence, “immortality projects” in order to stave off the subconscious fear of our own inevitable demise.This tendency is not exclusive to religions, but is also applicable to all sorts of other secular philosophies and behaviors.

The introduction to Becker’s book online provides a good summary:

Becker’s philosophy as it emerges in Denial of Death and Escape from Evil is a braid woven from four strands.

The first strand. The world is terrifying…Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates. We live, he says, in a creation in which the routine activity for organisms is “tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue.”

The second strand. The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Human beings are naturally anxious because we are ultimately helpless and abandoned in a world where we are fated to die. “This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression — and with all this yet to die.”

The third strand. Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. “The vital lie of character” is the first line of defense that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being. If I am like my all-powerful father I will not die. So long as we stay obediently within the defense mechanisms of our personality…we feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high. We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality; we encapsulate ourselves to avoid death. And life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.

Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.

Here’s Becker himself:

…of course, religion solves the problem of death, which no living individuals can solve, no matter how they would support us. Religion, then, gives the possibility of heroic victory in freedom and solves the problem of human dignity at its highest level. The two ontological motives of the human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality.

Finally, religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach, the possibility of a multidimensionality of spheres of existence, of heavens and possible embodiments that make a mockery of earthly logic — and in doing so, it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter. In religious terms, to “see God” is to die, because the creature is too small and finite to be able to bear the higher meanings of creation. Religion takes one’s very creatureliness, one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope. Full transcendence of the human condition means limitless possibility unimaginable to us. [1]

Becker’s ideas are thoroughly grounded in the Freudian school, and Freud’s essential insight was that human actions, beliefs, desires and intentions are often motivated by hidden, subconscious forces which we are not fully aware of. In this case, the subconscious fear of death motivates us to embrace belief systems that allow us to symbolically transcend our own mortality.

One common trope I often hear about religion is that we simply came up with a bunch of fairy tales to cope with our existential fear of death, and that this explains religion.

But, as we’ve already seen, this is far from adequate in explaining the persistence and diversity of religious beliefs. As we saw, most ancient religions did not believe in a comfortable, cushy afterlife, and the tales of wandering spirits of the dead requiring constant appeasement do not provide much reassurance about what comes after death. If we just wanted to reassure ourselves in the face of our mortality, why didn’t we invent the “happy ending,” country-club afterlife straightaway? Why did such beliefs have to wait until after the Axial Age to emerge? And what about religions that believed in metempsychosis (transference of consciousness to a new body, i.e. reincarnation), rather than a comfortable afterlife?

Plus, this does not explain our beliefs in ghosts, spirits, and other invisible beings. Nor does it explain the extreme wastefulness and costliness of religion. The book itself says little about the origin and development of actual religion, and where it does, it deals exclusively with Western Judeo-Christian religions (the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard is especially cited).

Nevertheless, Terror Management Theory’s ideas have been empirically shown to have an effect on our belief systems and behavior. When knowledge of one’s own death has been subconsciously induced in test subjects (a technique called “priming”), people have been shown to be more clannish, more hostile to outsiders, more harsh to deviants, more likely to accept and dole out harsh punishments, and so forth (in short, more conservative). And, certainly the motivations for many strange behaviors—from the lust for power, to obsessive work and entrepreneurship, to desperate attempts to achieve lasting fame and stardom, to trying to create a “godlike” artificial intelligence, to beliefs about “uploading” one’s personal consciousness into computers, to scientific attempts to genetically “cure” aging and disease—can be seen as immortality projects motivated by a subconscious fear of death.

I would argue that a case can be made that the reason almost every culture known to man has believed that some sort of “life essence” survives the body after death stems from an existential fear of death similar to what Becker described. But the reason it took the forms that it did has more to do with some of the things we looked at last time–Theory of Mind, Hyperactive Agency Detection, the Intentional Stance, and so forth.

The noted anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski wrote an essay on the purpose of religion which in many ways echoes the ideas of Becker:

…in not a single one of its manifestations can religion be found without its firm roots in human emotion, which…grows out of desires and vicissitudes connected with life. Two affirmations, therefore, preside over every ritual act, every rule of conduct, and every belief. There is the affirmation of the existence of powers sympathetic to man, ready to help him on condition that he conforms to the traditional lore which teaches how to serve them, conjure them, and propitiate them. This is the belief in Providence, and this belief assists man in so far as it enhances his capacity to act and his readiness to organize for action, under conditions where he must face and with not only the ordinary forces of nature, but also chance, ill luck, and the mysterious, even inculculable designs of destiny.

The second belief is that beyond the brief span of natural life there is compensation in another existence. Through this belief man can act and calculate far beyond his own forces and limitations, looking forward to his work being continued by his successors in the conviction that, from the next world, he will still be able to watch and assist them. The sufferings and efforts, the injustices and inequalities of this life are thus made up for. Here again we find that the spiritual force of this belief not only integrated man’s own personality, but is indispensable for the cohesion of the social fabric. Especially in the form which this belief assumes in ancestor-worship and the communion with the dead do we perceive its moral and social influence.

In their deepest foundations, as well as in their final consequences, the two beliefs in Providence and Immortality are not independent of one another. In the higher religions man lives in order to be united to God. In simpler forms, the ancestors worshiped are often mystically identified with environmental forces, as in Totemism. At times, they are both ancestors and carriers of fertility, as the Kachina of the Pueblos. Or again the ancestor is worshiped as the divinity, or at last as a culture hero.

The unity of religion in substance, form and function is to be found everywhere. Religious development consists probably in the growing predominance of the ethical principle and in the increasing fusion of the two main factors of all belief, the sense of Providence and the faith in Immortality.

As we climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we look for different things from our religions. Due to the “vicissitudes of life” ancient peoples often sought after more basic things related to material security: adequate rainfall, bountiful harvests, growing herds, protection form diseases, protection from raids, and so forth. They consulted spirits for decisions—whom to marry, when to go to war, how to bring back the rains, and so on. Today, with most of us living in societies where our basic material needs are met, we look for things like fulfillment, purpose, belonging and meaning using the same religious framework.

Religion as a Memeplex

The idea of memetics was first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins made an explicit analogy between biological information (genes) which differentially reproduce and propagate themselves through time by using living organisms, and cultural information (memes), which live in human minds and reproduce via cultural imitation. A collection of related and reinforcing memes is called a memeplex (from the term, “coadapted meme complex”).

The underlying mechanisms behind genes (instructions for making proteins, stored in the cells of the body and passed on in reproduction), and memes (instructions for carrying out behavior, stored in brains, and passed on via imitation) were both very similar, Dawkins thought, and the ideas underlying Darwinism could apply to both. This is sometimes referred to as “Universal Darwinism”:

The creator of the concept and its denomination as a “meme” was Richard Dawkins. Other authors such as Edward O. Wilson and J. D. Lumsden previously proposed the concept of culturgen in order to designate something similar. At the present time the term of Dawkins has been imposed, although the theory of memes now includes contributions from many other authors. Therefore, talking of memes today is not simply the theories of memes of Dawkins.

Daniel Dennett, Memes and Religion: Reasons for the Historical Persistence of Religion. Guillermo Armengol (PDF)

The behavior of both memes and genes are based around three principle factors: variation, competition (or selection), and retention (or persistence):

For something to count as a replicator it must sustain the evolutionary algorithm based on variation, selection and retention (or heredity).

Memes certainly come with variation–stories are rarely told exactly the same way twice, no two buildings are absolutely identical, and every conversation is unique—and when memes are passed on, the copying is not always perfect….There is memetic selection – some memes grab the attention, are faithfully remembered and passed on to other people, while others fail to get copied at all. Then, when memes are passed on there is retention of some of the ideas of behaviours in that meme – something of the original meme must be retained for us to call it imitation or copying or learning by example. The meme therefore fits perfectly into Dawkins’ idea of a replicator and Dennett’s universal algorithm…

Where do new memes come from? They come about through variation and combination of old ones – either inside one person’s mind, or when memes are passed from person to person…The human mind is a rich source of variation. In our thinking we mix up ideas and turn them over to produce new combinations…Human creativity is a process of variation and recombination. [2]

Memetics is more of a theory about the evolution of religions that about their origins. Why do some ideas catch on while others die out? How and why do religions change over time? Memetics can provide an explanation.

One of my favorite definitions of “culture” is given by David Deutsch in his book The Beginnings of Infinity:

A culture is a set of ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some ways. By ‘ideas’ I mean any information that can be stored in people’s brains and can affect their behavior. Thus the shared values of a nation, the ability to communicate in a particular language, the shared knowledge of an academic discipline and the appreciation of a given musical style are all, in this sense, ‘sets of ideas’ that define cultures…

The world’s major cultures – including nations, languages, philosophical and artistic movements, social traditions and religions – have been created incrementally over hundreds or even thousands of years. Most of the ideas that define them, including the inexplicit ones, have a long history of being passed from one person to another. That makes these ideas memes – ideas that are replicators. [3]

We see by this definition that it is difficult to distinguish religion from any other form of culture—they all cause their adopters to behave alike in certain ways, and adopt similar ideas. This has caused some scholars to question whether we can even define such a thing as “religion” apart from every other type of social behavior, or whether it’s simply an academic invention:

[Jonathan Zittell] Smith wanted to dislodge the assumption that the phenomenon of religion needs no definition. He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison…

A vast number of traditions have existed over time that one could conceivably categorise as religions. But in order to decide one way or the other, an observer first has to formulate a definition according to which some traditions can be included and others excluded. As Smith wrote in the introduction to Imagining Religion: ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterised in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion’. There might be evidence for various expressions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so forth. But these become ‘religions’ only through second-order, scholarly reflection. A scholar’s definition could even lead her to categorise some things as religions that are not conventionally thought of as such (Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance), while excluding others that are (certain strains of Buddhism).

Is religion a universal in human culture or an academic invention? (Aeon)

It used to be thought that ideas were passed down through the generations simply because they were beneficial to us as a species. But memetic theory challenges that. One important concept from memetics is that the memes that replicate most faithfully and most often are not necessarily beneficial—they are simply the ones most able to replicate themselves. For this reason, religion has often been called a “virus of the mind” by people attempting to apply the ideas of memetics to religion.

If a gene is in a genome at all, then, when suitable circumstances arise, it will definitely be expressed as an enzyme…and it will cause its characteristic effects. Nor can it be left behind if the rest of the genome is successfully replicated. But merely being present in the mind does not automatically get a meme expressed as behaviour: the meme has to compete for that privilege with other ideas – memes and non-memes, about all sorts of subjects – in the same mind. And merely being expressed as behavior does not automatically get the meme copied into a recipeient along with other memes: it has to compete for the reipients’ attention and acceptance with all sorts of behaviours by other people, and with the recipients’ own ideas. All that is in addition to the analogue of the type of selection that genes face, each meme competing with rival versions of itself across the population, perhaps by containing the knowledge for some useful function.

Memes are subject to all sorts of random and intentional variation in addition to all that selection, and so they evolve. So to this extent the same the same logic holds as for genes: memes are ‘selfish’. They do not necessarily evolve to benefit their holder, or their society – or, again, even themselves, except in the sense of replicating better than other memes. (Though now most other memes are their rivals, not just variants of themselves.) The successful meme variant is the one that changes the behaviour of its holders in such a way as to make itself best at displacing other memes from the population. This variant may well benefit its holders, or their culture, or the species as a whole. But if it harms them, it will spread anyway. Memes that harm society are a familiar phenomenon. You need only consider the harm done by adherents of political views, or religions, that you especially abhor. Societies have been destroyed because some of the memes that were best at spreading through the population were bad for a society. [4]

In this formulation, religions are seen as actually harmful, simply “using” us to replicate themselves for their own benefit, and to our own detriment, just like a virus. This is the stance taken by, for example, Dawkins and Dennett—both strident atheists. For them, it would be best if we could “disinfect” our minds and free ourselves from these pesky thought viruses.

Dawkins coined the term ‘viruses of the mind’ to apply to such memeplexes as religions and cults – which spread themselves through vast populations of people by using all kinds of clever copying tricks, and can have disastrous consequences for those infected…This theme has been taken up in popular books on memetics, such as Richard Brodie’s Viruses of the Mind and Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion, both of which provide many examples of how memes spread through society and both of which emphasize the more dangerous and pernicious kinds of memes. We can now see that the idea of a virus is applicable in all three worlds – of biology, of computer programs and of human minds. The reason is that all three systems involve replicators and we call particularly useless and self-serving replicators ‘viruses.’ [5]

Nevertheless, such “idea viruses” cannot inflict too much damage on their recipients, otherwise they will undermine their own viability:

The overarching selection pressure on memes is towards being faithfully replicated, But, within that, there is also pressure to do as little damage to the holder’s mind as possible, because that mind is what the human uses to be long-lived enough to be able to enact the meme’s behaviors as much as possible. This pushes memes in the direction of causing a finely tuned compulsion in the holder’s mind: ideally, this would be just the inability to refrain from enacting that particular meme (or memeplex). Thus, for example, long-lived religions typically cause fear of specific supernatural entities, but they do not cause general fearfulness or gullibility, because that would both harm the holders in general and make them more susceptible to rival memes. So the evolutionary pressure is for the psychological damage to be confined to a relatively narrow area of the recipients’ thinking, but to be deeply entrenched, so that the recipients find themselves facing a large emotional cost if they subsequently consider deviating from the meme’s prescribed behaviors. [6]

Blackmore herself, however, has retreated from this notion, citing all the apparently beneficial effects from adherence to various religions: more children, longer lifespans, a more positive outlook, and so on:

Are religions viruses of the mind? I would have replied with an unequivocal “yes” until a few days ago when some shocking data suggested I am wrong.

The idea is that religions, like viruses, are costly to those infected with them. They demand large amounts of money and time, impose health risks and make people believe things that are demonstrably false or contradictory. Like viruses, they contain instructions to “copy me”, and they succeed by using threats, promises and nasty meme tricks that not only make people accept them but also want to pass them on.

This was all in my mind when Michael Blume got up to speak on “The reproductive advantage of religion”. With graph after convincing graph he showed that all over the world and in many different ages, religious people have had far more children than nonreligious people…

All this suggests that religious memes are adaptive rather than viral from the point of view of human genes, but could they still be viral from our individual or societal point of view? Apparently not, given data suggesting that religious people are happier and possibly even healthier than secularists. And at the conference, Ryan McKay presented experimental data showing that religious people can be more generous, cheat less and co-operate more in games such as the prisoner’s dilemma, and that priming with religious concepts and belief in a “supernatural watcher” increase the effects.

So it seems I was wrong and the idea of religions as “viruses of the mind” may have had its day. Religions still provide a superb example of memeplexes at work, with different religions using their horrible threats, promises and tricks to out-compete other religions, and popular versions of religions outperforming the more subtle teachings of the mystical traditions. But unless we twist the concept of a “virus” to include something helpful and adaptive to its host as well as something harmful, it simply does not apply. Bacteria can be helpful as well as harmful; they can be symbiotic as well as parasitic, but somehow the phrase “bacterium of the mind” or “symbiont of the mind” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind (The Guardian)

I think memetics is a good way to describe cultural transmission, and I wish that it was used much more freely by sociologists, historians, anthropologists, economists, and other students of human behavior. Memes are a good way to describe how religions are transmitted, and why some religious ideas predominate over others. They provide a good description of how religious ideas evolve over time. But it does not provide much information about how and why religions got started in the first place.

Bicameral Mind Theory

Bicameral Mind Theory (BMT) was proposed by psychologist Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (coincidentally, the same year as Dawkins and only three years after Becker).

Jaynes argued that what ancient peoples referred to as the “gods” were, in reality, aural hallucinations produced by their own mind. Such hallucinations stemmed from the partitioning of the human brain into two separate hemispheres (bicameral). Spoken language was produced primarily by the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere was mostly silent. Jaynes noted from research on split-brain patients that if portions of the right hemisphere were electrically stimulated, subjects would tend to hallucinate voices.

This caused him to hypothesize that the thought patterns of ancient man were radically different than our own. In times of stress caused by decision-making, he argued, internal speech was perceived as something “alien” that was guiding and directing one’s actions from somewhere outside oneself.

One of his major pieces of evidence was a thorough study of ancient literature. Jaynes noted that ancient literature lacked a conception of the “self” or anything like a “soul” in living beings. Self-reflective and contemplative behavior simply did not exist. In addition, the gods are described as controlling people’s actions, and people frequently communicate directly with the gods. Most scholars simply took this communication as some sort of elaborate metaphor, but Jaynes was willing to take these descriptions seriously. Such depictions are very common in the Old Testament, for example. And he notes that in the Iliad—the oldest work of Western literature compiled from earlier oral traditions—the characters seem to have no volition whatsoever; they are merely “puppets” of the gods:

The gods are what we now call hallucinations. Usually they are only seen and heard by particular heroes they are speaking to. Sometimes they come in mists or out of the gray sea or a river, or from the sky, suggesting visual auras preceding them. But at other times, they simply occur. Usually they come as themselves, commonly as mere voices, but sometimes as other people closely related to the hero. [7]

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like…In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness. The beginnings of action are not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives; they are in the actions and speeches of gods. To another, a man seems to be the cause of his own behavior. But not to the man himself… [8]

In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind. Volition, planning, initiative is organized with no consciousness whatever and then ‘told’ to the individual in his familiar language, sometimes with the visual aura of a familiar friend or authority figure of ‘god’, or sometimes as a voice alone. The individual obeyed these hallucinated voices because he could not ‘see’ what to do by himself…[9]

The preposterous hypothesis we have come to…is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man. Neither part was conscious…[10]

The gods would reveal themselves to people in times of stress. We saw earlier that stress—even in modern people—often causes an eerie sense of a “felt presence” nearby:

If we are correct in assuming that schizophrenic hallucinations are similar to the guidances of gods in antiquity, then there should be some common physiological instigation in both instances. This, I suggest, is simply stress.

In normal people, as we have mentioned, the stress threshold for release is extremely high; most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices. But in psychosis-prone persons, the threshold is somewhat lower…This is caused, I think, by the buildup in the blood of breakdown products of stress-produced adrenalin which the individual is, for genetic reasons, unable to pass through the kidneys as fast as a normal person.

During the eras of the bicameral mind, we may suppose that the stress threshold for hallucinations was much, much lower than in either normal people or schizophrenics today. The only stress necessary was that which occurs when a change in behavior is necessary because of some novelty in a situation. Anything that could not be dealt with on the basis of habit, any conflict between work and fatigue, between attack and flight, any choice between whom to obey or what to do, anything that required any decision at all was sufficient to cause an auditory hallucination. [11]

Jaynes’ other line of evidence was physiological, and came from the structure of the human brain itself:

The evidence to support this hypothesis may be brought together as five observations: (1) that both hemispheres are able to understand language, while normally only the left can speak; (2) that there is some vestigial functioning of the right Wernicke’s area in a way similar to the voices of the gods; (3) that the two hemispheres under certain conditions are able to act almost as independent persons, their relationship corresponding to that of the man-god relationship of bicameral times; (4) that contemporary differences between the hemispheres in cognitive functions at least echo such differences of function between man and god as seen in the literature of bicameral man; and (5) that the brain is more capable of being organized by the environment than we have hitherto supposed, and therefore could have undergone such a change as from bicameral to conscious man mostly on the basis of learning and culture. [12]

It’s important to note that when Jaynes uses the term “consciousness”, he is using it in a very specific and deliberate way. He is not talking about the state of simply being awake, or being aware of one’s surroundings. Nor is he talking about reacting to stimulus, or having emotional reactions to events. Obviously, this applies to nearly all animals. Rather, he’s talking about something like “meta-consciousness”, or the ability to self-reflect when making decisions:

The background of Jaynes’ evolutionary account of the transition from bicamerality to the conscious mind is the claim that human consciousness arises from the power of language to make metaphors and analogies. Metaphors of “me” and analogous models of “I” allow consciousness to function through introspection and self-visualization. According to this view, consciousness is a conceptual, metaphor-generated inner world that parallels the actual world and is intimately bound with volition and decision. Homo sapiens, therefore, could not experience consciousness until he developed a language sophisticated enough to produce metaphors and analogical models.

Jaynes recognizes that consciousness itself is only a small part of mental activity and is not necessary for sensation or perception, for concept formation, for learning, thinking, or even reasoning. Thus, if major human actions and skills can function automatically and unconsciously, then it is conceivable that there were, at one time, human beings who did most of the things we do – speak, understand, perceive, solve problems – but who were without consciousness. [13]

Jaynes saw echoes of this bicameral mentality in psychological phenomena such as schizophrenia and hypnosis. Hypnosis, he argued, was a regression to a conscious state prior to that of the modern type which constantly narratizes our lived experience:

If one has a very definite biological notion of consciousness and that its origin is back in the evolution of mammalian nervous systems, I cannot see how the phenomenon of hypnosis can be understood at all, not one speck of it. But if we fully realize that consciousness is a culturally learned event, balanced over the suppressed vestiges of an earlier mentality, then we can see that consciousness, in part, can be culturally unlearned or arrested. Learned features, such as analog ‘I’, can under the proper cultural imperative be taken over by a different initiative works in conjunction with the other factors of the diminishing consciousness of the induction and trance is that in some way it engages a paradigm of an older mentality than subjective consciousness. [14]

…[W]hy is it that in our daily lives we cannot get above ourselves to authorize ourselves into being what we really wish to be? If under hypnosis we can be changed in identity and action, why not in and by ourselves so that behavior flows from decision with as absolute a connection, so that whatever in us it is that we refer to as will stands master and captain over action with as sovereign a hand as the operator over a subject?

The answer here is partly in the limitations of our learned consciousness in this present millennium. We need some vestige of the bicameral mind, our former method of control, to help us. With consciousness we have given up those simpler more absolute methods of control of behavior which characterized the bicameral mind. We live in a buzzing cloud of whys and wherefores, the purposes and reasonings of our narratizations, the many-routed adventures of our analog ‘I’s. And this constant spinning out of possibilities is precisely what is necessary to save us from behavior of too impulsive a sort. The analog ‘I’ and the metaphor ‘me’ are always resting at the confluence of many collective cognitive imperatives. We know too much to command ourselves very far. [15]

And schizophrenia, he argued, was a vestige of how the bicameral mind routinely worked, but was now only present in those with the genetic disposition for it, perhaps because of some quirk of neurotransmitter functioning or something similar:

Most of us spontaneously slip back into something approaching the actual bicameral mind at some part of our lives. For some of us, it is only a few episodes of thought deprivation or hearing voices. But for others of us, with overactive dopamine systems, or lacking an enzyme to easily break down the biochemical products of continued stress into excretable form, it is a much more harrowing experience – if it can be called an experience at all. We hear voices of impelling importance that criticize us and tell us what to do. At the same time, we seem to lose the boundaries of ourselves. Time crumbles. We behave without knowing it. Our mental space begins to vanish. We panic, and yet the panic is not happening to us. There is no us. It is not that we have nowhere to turn; we have nowhere. And in that nowhere, we are somehow automatons, unknowing what we do, being manipulated by others or by our voices in strange and frightening ways in a place we come to recognize as a hospital with a diagnosis we are told is schizophrenia. In reality, we have relapsed into the bicameral mind. [16]

It is the very central and unique place of these auditory hallucinations on the syndrome of many schizophrenics which it is important to consider. Why are they present? And why is “hearing voices” universal throughout all cultures, unless there is some usually suppressed structure of the brain which is activated in the stress of this illness? And why do these hallucinations of schizophrenics so often have a dramatic authority, particularly religious? I find that the only notion which provides even a working hypothesis about this matter is that of the bicameral mind, that the neurological structure responsible for these hallucinations is neurologically bound to substrates for religious feelings, and this is because the source of religion and of gods themselves is in the bicameral mind. [17]

Interestingly, modern research has revealed that anywhere from 5-15 of the population hears voices on occasion, and sometimes quite regularly. Most of these people are non-clinical—only about 1 percent of the population is considered to be schizophrenic. These percentages happen to approximate those in tribal societies who are considered to be able to perform as religious priests or shamans. In many tribal cultures, the ability to hear voices is considered to be a sign of being able to communicate with gods and spirits and move “between worlds” and thus highly desirable, rather than stigmatized. Indeed, many scholars of religion have seen clear links between symptoms of schizophrenia and so-called shamanic abilities.

Wither hallucinations?

Whether of not one fully accepts Jaynes’ hypothesis, I would argue that there’s one clear point he makes that has influenced beliefs in unseen spirits and survival of ancestors after death: the presence of hallucinations.

It turns out that hallucinating dead relatives is extremely common, even in rationalist Christian Western countries. If that’s the case, how much more common was this phenomenon in ancient times?

Up to six in ten grieving people have “seen” or “heard” their dead loved one, but many never mention it out of fear people will think they’re mentally ill. Among widowed people, 30 to 60 per cent have experienced things like seeing their dead spouse sitting in their old chair or hearing them call out their name, according to scientists.

The University of Milan researchers said there is a “very high prevalence” of these “post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences” (PBHEs) in those with no history of mental disorders. They came to their conclusions after looking at all previous peer-reviewed research carried out on the issue in the English language.

Jacqueline Hayes, an academic at the University of Roehampton, has studied the phenomenon, interviewing people from across the UK who have lost spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends. She told the Daily Mail: “People report visions, voices, tactile sensations, smells, and something that we call a sense of presence that is not necessarily related to any of the five senses.”

She added: “I found that these experiences could at times be healing and transformative, for example hearing your loved one apologise to you for something that happened – and at other times foreground the loss and grief in a painful way.”

Six in ten grieving people ‘see or hear dead loved ones’ (Telegraph)

Now, you might think that those are just hallucinations, and no one could seriously take this as a sign that their dead relatives were still alive. But, it’s important to remember that ancient peoples did not make the distinction between “real” and “not real” the way we do. To them, all phenomena which were experienced—whether in visions, trances, dreams, or “normal” waking consciousness—were treated as equally “real”. The stance we would take in modern times—that our subjective consciousness is not real, while at the same time there is an objective reality which is exclusively real—is not one which would have been operative in past pre-scientific cultures, especially pre-literate ones.

And, indeed, we can see that there are valid reasons for believing this to be so:

Let’s count the many ways that hallucinated voices are real:

– They are real neurological patterns that exist in real human brains.

– They are subjectively real. The listener actually hears them.

– They satisfy the criterion for reality put forward by David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality: they kick back.

– They have metaphorical reality. We can reason about the voices the same way we talk about a movie with our friends (discussing the characters’ motivations, their moral worth, etc.).

– They have real intelligence — because (this is crucial) they’re the products of a bona fide intelligent process. They’re emanating from the same gray matter that we use to perceive the world, make plans, string words together into sentences, etc. The voices talk, say intelligent things, make observations that the hearer might not have noticed, and have personalities (stubborn, encouraging, nasty, etc.).

They are, above all, the kinds of things toward which we can take the intentional stance — treating them like agents with motivations, beliefs, and goals. They are things to be reasoned with, placated, ignored, or subverted, but not things whose existence is to be denied.

Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)

By this criteria, whether or not people really experienced gods as aural hallucinations at one point in time, it is quite likely that they did experience hallucinations which they would have regarded as legitimate and real. Thus, beliefs in disembodied souls would have been a product of actual, lived experience for the majority of people, rather than just an “irrational” belief.

[1] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, pp. 203-204

[2] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, pp. 14-15

[3] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, p. 369

[4] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, pp. 378-379

[5] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, p. 22

[6] David Deutsch, The Beginnings of Infinity, p. 384

[7] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 74

[8] ibid., p. 72

[9] ibid., p. 75

[10] ibid., p. 84

[11] ibid., p. 84, p. 93

[12] ibid., p. 84, p. 106

[13] The “bicameral mind” 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis, A.E. Cavanna, et. al. Functional Neurology, January 2007

[14] Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 84, p. 398

[15] ibid., p. 402

[16] ibid., p. 404

[17] ibid., p. 413

The Origin of Religion – Part 2

Let’s take a look at the major components of religious belief according to scientists working on this problem:

1. Hypersensitive Agency Detection (HAD or HADD)

This is one of the things that almost always gets mentioned in the evolutionary psychology of religious belief. Basically, it’s a “false positive”—a default assumption that some event is caused by a conscious entity rather than by random chance. It is thought that such “constructive paranoia” helped us avoid attacks from predators and other hostiles:

Scientists working in the cognitive science of religion have offered…explanations, including the hyperactive agency-detecting device (HADD). This tendency explains why a rustle in the bushes in the dark prompts the instinctive thought: ‘There’s someone there!’ We seem to have evolved to be extremely quick to ascribe agency – the capacity for intention and action – even to inanimate objects.

In our ancestral environment, this tendency is not particularly costly in terms of survival and reproduction, but a failure to detect agents that are there can be very costly. Fail to detect a sabre-toothed cat, and it’ll likely take you out of the gene pool. The evolution of a HADD can account for the human tendency to believe in the presence of agents even when none can actually be observed. Hence the human belief in invisible person-like beings, such as spirits or gods.

There are also forms of supernatural belief that don’t fit the ‘invisible person-like being’ mould, but merely posit occult forces – eg, feng shui, supernaturally understood – but the HADD doesn’t account for such beliefs…

Belief in supernatural beings is totally natural – and false (Aeon)

2. Theory of Mind (ToM) and Existential Theory of Mind. (EToM)

Theory of Mind (ToM), or Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) is basically our intuitive ability to read other people’s minds. It’s “the understanding that others have beliefs, desires and goals, influencing their actions. ToM allows us to have sophisticated social relationships and to predict how others will behave. You couldn’t “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” without it…” [1]

…we can think of ToM as the cognitive system that humans typically use to engage in social interactions with other people. By engaging your ToM when you interact with someone else, you are able to attribute human mental states – such as thoughts, emotions, and intentions – to that person.

It’s adaptive to engage your ToM when interacting with another person, because your ‘theory’ will usually be correct: the other person usually will, in fact, have a normal human mind. So if you assume they do have such a mind, you’ll generally be able to have a more successful social interaction than you would if you assumed that they had no mind, or some kind of non-human mind.

What religion is really all about (Psychology Today)

The perils of an overactive Theory of Mind

Humans, due to their social nature, possess the most sophisticated Theory of Mind in the animal kingdom, and this gives rise not only to the ability to model other people’s inner states and intentions, but also our own, leading to reflective self-consciousness:

It therefore appears at present that human beings, although probably not unique in possessing Theory of Mind, are nonetheless unusual in the degree of its sophistication, specifically in the extent to which they can accurately model the minds of others. It seems highly likely that those who possessed an accurate Theory of Mind enjoyed an advantage when it came to modelling the intentions of others, an advantage that continues to this day, and was an active ingredient in the evolution of human consciousness.

The self-conscious animal: how human minds evolved (Aeon)

Furthermore, “Humans…show extreme ToM, ascribing minds to inanimate or imagined things…” [1] In real life, people apply ToM to forces of nature, ancestor spirits and invisible gods. And they seem to think about these supernatural actors the same way they conceive of fellow humans: “fMRI studies have found ToM-related regions of the brain activate when people hear statements about God’s emotions and involvement in worldly affairs.” [1]

Experiments have confirmed that we attribute human characteristics and intentions to objects that we know do not have them, such as balloons and abstract shapes. A famous experiment in the 1940s demonstrated that even abstract shapes moving around in a film were perceived as having intentions and could be used to tell a story that the researchers wished to tell.


For example, there are a large number of movies where an inanimate object becomes a “character” in the film, and we apply our theory of mind to it just as much as we do for the flesh-and-blood characters. If we couldn’t do so, such films would make no sense. Take the French movie The Red Balloon. It is all about attributing human characteristics to a rubber ball filled with helium. Or take the “Herbie” movies by Disney. Herbie was a Volkswagen beetle who got into all sort of adventures with his human friends.

Functional MRI scans have confirmed that, in contemplating religious ideas, the theory of mind mechanism of our brain is engaged:

…researchers gave 40 religious volunteers functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans as they responded to statements reflecting three core elements of belief. …Overall, the parts of the brain activated by the belief statements were those used for much more mundane, everyday interpretation of the world and the intentions of other people. Significantly, however, they also correspond with the parts of the brain that have evolved most recently, and which appear to which give humans more insight than other animals.

“Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions,” say the researchers.

“It’s not surprising that religious beliefs engage mainly the theory-of-mind areas, as they are about virtual beings who are treated as having essentially human mental traits, just as characters in a novel or play are,” comments Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford.

‘Theory of mind’ could help explain belief in God (New Scientist)

Existential Theory of Mind (EToM) is the related idea that our theory of mind is so complex that we engage it not just with people, animals, and inanimate objects, but even with existence itself!

The idea of EToM is that people tend to engage their ToM in interactions not just with other people, but with ‘existence’ in general.
That is, humans seem naturally inclined to perceive their lives as ongoing interactions with some kind of transcendent mind(s) that, at least in some respects, seem(s) human-like. Across cultures, this transcendent mind-like power may be conceptualized as an explicitly-specified god or gods, or in more abstract terms (such as a universal spirit, karma, or ‘the force’).

It appears that more complex “higher order” religions may be connected with more recursive modes of Theory of Mind:

According to Robin Dunbar, it is through Theory of Mind that people may have come to know God, as it were… Dunbar argues that several orders of intentionality may be required, since religion is a social activity, dependent on shared beliefs. The recursive loops that are necessary run something like this: I suppose that you think that I believe there are gods who intend to influence our futures because they understand our desires. This is fifth-order intentionality. Dunbar himself must have achieved sixth-order intentionality if he supposes all of this, and if you suppose that he does then you have reached seventh-order…[3]

Interestingly, both the concept of the “soul” and such “higher-order” religions, religions where the participants are united by mutual self-professed beliefs in some sort of transcendent doctrine –emerge at roughly the same time. This appears to reflect the dawn of something approaching self-consciousness. I’ve previously argued that this has to do with recursion—see my review of The Recursive Mind.

Another consequence of Theory of Mind is that under times of stress, people often perceive a kind of conscious “presence” around them, somewhat analogous to the feeling of being watched. For example, the some of the members of Shackleton’s expedition independently experienced an invisible “felt presence” watching over them:

On 20 May 1916, Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean reached Stromness, a whaling station on the north coast of South Georgia. They had been walking for 36 hours, in life-threatening conditions, in an attempt to reach help for the rest of their party: three of their crew were stuck on the south side of the island, with the remainder stranded on Elephant Island. To reach the whaling station, the three men had to cross the island’s mountainous interior with just a rope and an axe, in a journey that few had attempted before or since. By reaching Stromness they managed to save all the men left from the ill-fated Imperial Transantarctic Expedition.

They did not talk about it at the time, but weeks later all three men reported an uncanny experience during their trek: a feeling that “often there were four, not three” men on their journey. The “fourth” that accompanied them had the silent presence of a real person, someone walking with them by their side, as far as the whaling station but no further. Shackleton was apparently deeply affected by the experience, but would say little about it in subsequent years, considering it something “which can never be spoken of”.

Encounters such as these are common in extreme survival situations: guardian angels, guides, or even Christ-like figures have often been reported. We know them now as “third man” experiences…

The strange world of felt presences (The Guardian)

3. Minimally Counterintuitive (MCI) Concepts.

Minimally Counterintuitve Concepts (MCI) ultimately stem from what some researchers have called non-reflective beliefs. There are beliefs which are so ingrained in our psyche that we don’t even think twice about them. Of course, these intuitive beliefs are not always correct. For example, before Galileo, people assumed that heavier objects would fall to earth faster than lighter ones. It turns out that they were wrong.

HADD (see above) is what [Justin] Barrett calls a non-reflective belief, which are always operating in our brains even without our awareness of them. Reflective beliefs, on the other hand, are ones we actively think about. Non-reflective beliefs come from various mental tools, which he terms “intuitive inference systems”.

In addition to agency detection, these mental tools include naive biology, naive physics, and intuitive morality. Naive physics, for example, is the reason children intuitively know that solid objects can’t pass through other solid objects, and that objects fall if they’re not held up. As for intuitive morality, recent research suggests that three-month old “infants’ evaluations of others’ prosocial and antisocial behaviours are consistent with adults’ moral judgments”.

Barrett claims that non-reflective beliefs are crucial in forming reflective beliefs. “The more non-reflective beliefs that converge the more likely a belief becomes reflectively held.” If we want to evaluate humans’ reflective beliefs about God, then we need to start with figuring out whether and how those beliefs are anchored in non-reflective beliefs.

But how do we go from non-reflective beliefs like HADD and Naive Biology to reflective ones like a God who rewards good people and punishes bad ones? It’s here that Barrett invokes the idea of minimally counterintuitive (MCI) concepts…

A Minimally Counterintutive Concept is one that is congruent with our non-reflective belief systems. It’s something that’s very similar to the things we encounter in everyday life, but just different enough to be more memorable. “MCI concepts are basically intuitive concepts with one or two minor tweaks.”

Barrett gives the example of a flying carpet, which “behaves” like a regular carpet in every way except one. “Such ideas combine the processing ease and efficiency of intuitive ideas with just enough novelty to command attention, and hence receive deeper processing.”
It’s not surprising, then, that cross-cultural studies have shown that MCI concepts are easily recalled and shared. There are two reasons for this, says Barrett. First, MCI concepts maintain their conceptual structure. Second, MCI concepts tend to stand out from among an array of ordinary concepts. “What captures your attention more,” he writes, “a potato that is brown, a potato that weighs two pounds, or an invisible potato?”

Religious beliefs are shared – and they’re shared by human animals with a shared neural anatomy. Our mental toolkit contains built-in biases, such as HADD, which is responsible for a number of false positives. (Most of the time it is just the wind!) For brains that seem wired to find agency and intention everywhere, religion comes very naturally.

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

A Maximally Counterintutive Concept, by contrast, is one which we have a hard time relating to, so we tend to dismiss it as false, instinctively, regardless of its actual veracity.

I think this explains a lot of the stubborn resistance surrounding Darwinian evolution, as well as a lot of other scientific concepts. The idea that slow, incremental change over time gave rise to the teeming multitude of life around us (including ourselves) seems impossible to believe, as even evolution’s staunchest defenders acknowledge. This is because we think on time scales of years, or maybe decades, based on our lifespans. We simply cannot understand—except at the most abstract, intellectual level—a thousand years, let alone a million years. (1 million is a thousand thousands).

Thus, I would call biological evolution a Maximally Counterintutive Concept.

By contrast, the idea of a creator god is minimally counterintuitive, since we humans intentionally create things all the time. Often, in ancient mythology, God creates the world and man the same way we might create, say, a clay pot or a loaf of bread. That’s not hard for us to understand at all, hence it’s a minimally counterintutive concept. And the concept of a “loving, caring” God is really just a step removed from our own parents.

Another way of putting this is that MCI’s are “viral” from a memetic standpoint; they are especially good at becoming memes. Minimally counterintutive concepts make excellent memes, and so they spread more rapidly and easily than their maximally counterintutive rivals. We’ll take a look at memetic theories of religion a bit later.

In fact, it turns out that a great many scientific concepts are maximally counterintutive. The earth is billions of years old? The universe is expanding? Time slows down with your velocity, or moves faster the higher up you go? Solid matter is mostly empty space? Invisible particles in the atmosphere are changing the climate? Really??? Even simple concepts—like the fact that the earth revolves around the sun and is a sphere—are the opposite of how we actually experience them in daily life.

Richard Dawkins may well be right when he describes the theory of natural selection as one of our species’ finest accomplishments; it is an intellectually satisfying and empirically supported account of our own existence. But almost nobody believes it. One poll found that more than a third of college undergraduates believe that the Garden of Eden was where the first human beings appeared. And even among those who claim to endorse Darwinian evolution, many distort it in one way or another, often seeing it as a mysterious internal force driving species toward perfection. (Dawkins writes that it appears almost as if “the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism.”)…

What’s the problem with Darwin? His theory of evolution does clash with the religious beliefs that some people already hold. For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence. Other religions posit more physical processes on the part of the creator or creators, such as vomiting, procreation, masturbation, or the molding of clay. Not much room here for random variation and differential reproductive success.

But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

It turns out that Dawkins is right, our brains are designed to misunderstand evolution. It’s much easier to attribute things like thunder and lightning to the “anger” of Zeus or Thor than to something like static electricity differentials, and so forth. It’s a lot easier for the average person to comprehend God’s wrath than plate tectonics. As Insane Clown Posse declared, “I don’t want to hear from no scientist; you fuckers are lyin’ and gettin’ me pissed!” For them, and many others like them, biological reproduction and magnets are simply “miracles”.

4. The Intentional Stance (IS):

This is similar to Theory of Mind: attributing deliberate intentions to other human beings and animals, but also to many things that do not have—and cannot have—intentions and beliefs of their own. This idea was developed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

According to Daniel Dennett, there are three different strategies that we might use when confronted with objects or systems: the physical stance, the design stance, and the intentional stance. Each of these strategies is predictive. We use them to predict and thereby to explain the behavior of the entity in question. (‘Behavior’ here is meant in a very broad sense, such that the movement of an inanimate object—e.g., the turning of a windmill—counts as behavior.)

The physical stance stems from the perspective of the physical sciences. To predict the behavior of a given entity according to the physical stance, we use information about its physical constitution in conjunction with information about the laws of physics…

When we make a prediction from the design stance, we assume that the entity in question has been designed in a certain way, and we predict that the entity will thus behave as designed…we often gain predictive power when moving from the physical stance to the design stance…

Often, we can improve our predictions yet further by adopting the intentional stance. When making predictions from this stance, we interpret the behavior of the entity in question by treating it as a rational agent whose behavior is governed by intentional states.

The intentional stance (Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind)

A good example might be crossing the street. You can predict from the physical stance how fast you can walk, or how quickly a car can stop taking inertia into account, and so on. You also know the basic mechanics of how a car operates by using the design stance—a car has an engine, brakes, a transmission, an ignition, rubber tires, and so forth. It was designed deliberately by human beings for their use. You know that stoplights are designed to change color to regulate traffic. But to really predict what’s going on, you need to understand what’s in the mind of the driver. For that, you adopt the intentional stance to ascribe beliefs, intentions, motivations, and limitations to the driver. This will ultimately tell you whether the car will stop or not, beyond just the physical and design considerations.

Dennett’s argument (as I understand it) is that the benefits of using the intentional stance cause us to apply it to all sort of things where it does not belong. For example, we tend to attribute intentions, characteristics, and deliberate behavior even to inanimate objects that we know are inanimate objects (like the geometric shapes in the movie, for example). Taken to its logical conclusion, you get things like animism and pantheism.

The sun wants us to have two scoops of raisins in the morning. No clue as to how the raisins feel about being eaten, though.

As Rupert Sheldrake points out, young children often draw the sun with a smiley face in it, like on the box of Raisin Bran. This indicates, according to Sheldrake, that children are “instinctive animists,” attributing human mental characteristics to all sorts of inanimate things in the world around them. Indeed, toddlers will often explain scenarios involving inanimate objects in terms of intentions—i.e. the box “wants” this, or the pencil “feels” that. Cloudy days are when the sun “doesn’t feel like” coming out, or “refuses to shine,” for example.

5. Full Access Agents (FAA):

We’ve previously talked about how we are “instinctive dualists,” dividing the world into one of bodies—subject to the laws of physics and physiology; and one of minds—subject to the laws of human psychology. But for some reason, we attribute superior knowledge to the invisible minds which surround us. These “invisible minds” can be in places we cannot, and can read the beliefs and intentions of others in a way we cannot.

These beings have been called “Full Access Agents”: “By full access agents I mean agents that have an unlimited access to other person’s minds: they are omniscient in the sense that they know all mental contents there are to be known.” [4] p. 31

Closely related to the idea of agency is what Dennett refers to as a cards-up phenomenon. Agency detection carries with it certain risks: do you know about that bad thing I did? How can I be sure you know, and how can I be sure about what you think about me because of it? These are complex questions and human beings aren’t good at managing all the options.

What’s needed for learning how to navigate these muddy waters is for everyone to be taught the rules of the game by placing all of our cards face up on the table. The teacher, then, is something of a full-access agent: they see everything and can instruct us accordingly.

The original full-access agents, says Dennett, were our dead ancestors. But eventually, the seeds of this idea became more formalised in various theologies…

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Furthermore, such Full Access Agents have disproportionate access, in particular, to something called “socially strategic information.” Socially strategic information is “information that activates the mental systems used for social interaction. And, “Some theorists have argued that humans throughout history have committed themselves to “the gods” rather than countless other anthropomorphized and supernatural beings (e.g., dragons, trolls, and Mickey Mouse), precisely because the gods have access to socially strategic information.” [5]

Put another way, FAAs help resolve what are called “Multipolar Traps” where equilibrium depends on people not defecting from sort of collective social norm. A multipolar trap can be described as, “a situation where cooperating is in one’s interest only if doing so caused everyone (or almost everyone) else to cooperate.” However, there is always a risk of defection where the defector benefits at the cost of everyone else. Thus, to prevent the defector from winning, everyone needs to update their behavior, and the equilibrium falls apart: “If you cooperate in an environment where most people are defecting, you are only hurting yourself, both in the short-run and in the long-run. If you defect in an environment where most people are cooperating, you benefit yourself in the short and long runs, as well.” Full Access Agents, then, may have helped us escape from the consequences of this trap, allowing for greater cooperation:

“Humans are not very good at behaving just because you punish them for not behaving,” says evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, “otherwise we would all be driving well under 70 on the motorway.” The real problem isn’t how bad the punishment is, but how risky it is to be caught.

If the risk is low, he says, we’re prepared for the punishment. This would have been a major issue in prehistory. As hunter-gatherer groups grow, they need to be able enforce a punishment mechanism – but the greater the size of the group, the less chance there is of being found out.

Enter full-access agents: “We don’t see what you do on Saturday night, but there is somebody who does, so beware,” as Dunbar puts it. This idea was consonant with the intuitive mental tools such as HADD and intuitive morality, so it was well-received by our ancestors’ evolved brains. Plus it had the added bonus of regulating behaviour from the bottom up. “You always get better behaviour from individual commitment,” says Dunbar, “not coercion.”

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Full Access Agents (FAA), or later, the “Universal Mind” (see EToM, above) were the enforcers of proper behavior: they were the original “Big Brother” from George Orwell’s 1984 (and, in the case of ancestor worship at least, it might literally be your big brother!). While we are fully aware that flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings can be tricked, deceived, and possess false knowledge, for some reason these invisible spirits are not subject to the same deficits:

Across cultures, even children seem to think that gods know more than normal humans. This is borne out by experiments using what psychologists call the ‘false-belief task’, which tests whether individuals can detect that others have false beliefs.

In one version of the test, researchers put a bag of rocks into a box of crackers, showed children what’s inside, and then asked what various entities would think was in the box. If the children said: ‘Mom thinks rocks are in there’, then they haven’t passed the false-belief task. If they said: ‘Mom thinks crackers are in there, but there are really rocks’, they have a handle on the incorrect mental states of others.

What’s curious is that, with age, children come to know that Mom, dogs, and even trees will have incorrect thoughts, but they never extend that vulnerability to God. In fact, the quality of omniscience attributed to God appears to extend to any disembodied entity…Louisville Seminary researchers found that children think imaginary friends know more than flesh-and-blood humans. There appears to be a rule, then, deep in our mental programming that tells us: minds without bodies know more than those with bodies.

Furthermore, we also seem to instinctively believe that the Full Access Agents’ knowledge about moral intentions is superior to that of any other actor, and this belief is consistent across cultures:

Christian students from the University of Connecticut who claim that God knows everything will nonetheless rate His knowledge of moral information as better than His knowledge of non-moral information…As reported in a 2012 article in Cognitive Science, our lab at the University of Connecticut examined what might be called this ‘moralisation bias’ of omniscient beings…What these studies suggest is that we intuitively attach moral information to disembodied minds. And this subtle association can alter our behaviour in significant ways.

In one study, in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2011, the psychologist Jared Piazza of Lancaster University and colleagues told children a story about a ghostly princess living in their lab. Though these children never heard a peep from the ghost, they cheated less on a difficult game than a control group of children who were not told the story. This suggests that gods, ghosts and other incorporeal minds might just get us to behave – particularly if we assume that the gods know about our behaviour, and especially if we think they can interfere in our affairs.

From an evolutionary perspective, the gods facilitate social bonds required for survival by raising the stakes of misconduct. Having a cosmic Wyatt Earp on the beat aids survival and reproduction by curbing others’ banditry. If you’re tempted to steal from someone, but know that God cares and has the power to do something about it, you might think twice. If God knows your thoughts, perhaps you wouldn’t even think twice. The Abrahamic God appears to be a punitive, paranoia-inducing Big Brother always watching and concerned with our crimes…

Why God knows more about misbehavior than anything else (Aeon)

As the above essay points out, exactly what the full access agents are interested in tends to vary based on the cultural norms. Some are not particularly concerned with sexuality; others are quite judgemental. In either case, they are hitched to basic human feelings of guilt and shame to enforce pro-social norms. For example, in Tuva (a culturally Mongolian society in Russia), gods are tutelary deities rather than all-knowing patriarchal fathers. Nevertheless, they still enforce social norms concerned with environmental stewardship that cannot be enforced by any external living entity:

The [Tuvan] spirit-masters aren’t as vindictive or punishing as the God of Abraham. However, if you disrespect them or forget to make an offering, your luck can quickly change. They also aren’t omniscient. ‘Does the spirit-master of this area know what happens in another area?’ I would ask when in the field. Responses often consisted of: ‘No, but those spirits know what happens in that area.’

The local gods in Tuva aren’t concerned with morality in the Abrahamic or Western sense; instead, they care about rituals and protecting resources such as natural springs, lakes and hunted animals in their area of governance…through conversations, interviews and a variety of other questioning techniques, Tuvans communicated that their gods care about rituals and practices associated with resource conservation. But when asked, for example: ‘Does this God care about theft?’ they’re more inclined to give affirmative responses than to non‑moral questions ..

It looks as if gods can tap into our mental moral systems regardless of what our explicit beliefs tell us. Even though Tuvans might think that their spirit-masters are unconcerned with how they treat each other (or simply do not talk about their gods in this way), these gods might still contribute to co‑operation. If they trigger Tuvans’ moral cognition, the gods might curb ‘immoral’ behaviour especially when associated with territory.

Unlike the God-as-Big-Brother model of the Abrahamic faiths, spirit-masters follow more of a God-as-shy-but-watchful-landlord model…

Why God knows more about misbehavior than anything else (Aeon)

Once societies became to large for external enforcement agents, it is thought, these invisible spirits stepped in to enforce pro-social behavior: “representations of full-access agents have directly helped reciprocal altruism to evolve because they can help one view things from others’ point of view and can make systems of moralistic punishment possible.” [4] p. 32

…morality predates religion, which certainly makes sense given what we know about the very old origins of empathy and play. But the question remains as to why morality came to be explicitly connected with religion. [Pascal] Boyer grounds this connection in our intuitive morality and our belief that gods and our departed ancestors are interested parties in our moral choices.

“Moral intuitions suggest that if you could see the whole of a situation without any distortion you would immediately grasp whether it was right or wrong. Religious concepts are just concepts of persons with an immediate perspective on the whole of a situation.”
Say I do something that makes me feel guilty. That’s another way of saying that someone with strategic information about my act would consider it wrong. Religion tells me these Someones exist, and that goes a long way to explaining why I felt guilty in the first place. Boyer sums it up in this way: “Most of our moral intuitions are clear but their origin escapes us…Seeing these intuitions as someone’s viewpoint is a simpler way of understanding why we have these intuitions.” Thus, Boyer concludes, religious concepts are in some way “parasitic upon moral intuitions”.

Do humans have a religion instinct? (BBC)

Full access agents, thanks to their all-knowing nature, can also be consulted when big, important decisions need to be made and there is a large element of random chance:

Representation of full-access agents help in strategic decisions: as these are often difficult to make because people do not believe their strategic information is perfect or automatic, they consult full-access agents for advice. In addition, a decision is sometimes difficult to make because the issue at hand is relatively trivial or no alternative stands out as superior. Should I buy this or that gift from my wife? Your place or mine?
Finally, some decisions are difficult to make because too much is at stake. Should I go for the operation when the risk of paralysis is 50 percent? Should we try to bust the terrorists at the risk of losing the hostages lives? [4] p.32

The religion equation.

So, then, our “religion equation” ends up looking something like this: HADD + ToMM + FAA = Religion; or at least the basic form of it.

In Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods and Buddhas, Iikka Pyysiainen derives a slightly different, but similar, equation:

I distinguish three overlapping cognitive mechanisms that contribute to agentive reasoning. The first is hyperactive agent detection (HAD): the tendency to postulate animacy–this mechanism is triggered by cues that are so minimal that it often produced false positive, for example, we see faces in the clouds, mistake shadows for persons, and so forth. Second is hyperactive understanding of intentionality (HUI): the tendency to postulate mentality and to see events as intentionally caused even in the absence of a visible agent. Third is hyperactive teleofunctional reasoning (HTR): the tendency to see objects as existing for a purpose. [4] p. 13

When HADD, HUI, and/or HTR are triggered, giving a false positive, three alternative supernatural explanations are available: the triggering event was caused by (1) a natural agent acting from afar, (2) a present but invisible and intangible agent; or (3) some impersonal force or very abstract kind of agency. The first alternative is represented by beliefs in telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, and the like; as well as the example of a picture miraculously falling off from the wall. Examples of the second are beliefs about gods, spirits, and other supernatural agents. Third would be a “numinous” force or a very abstract agent such as “the ground of being”. [4] p. 30

These beliefs in noncorporeal beings (agentive reasoning), in whatever form they take—ancestors, nature spirits, or ‘the universal spirit’—who can see into our inner souls and car about our moral choices, is the scaffolding upon which all subsequent religion is erected. Of course, the forms that it takes will vary greatly across cultures and across time. But such universals which give us clues as to religion’s fundamental nature and origin, while looking past the myriad superficial forms it may take.

In the next part of this series, I would like to briefly discuss some other ideas that were not mentioned in the BBC article, but have also been posited as giving rise to religion. These are Terror Management Theory (TMT), Bicameral Mind Theory (BMT) and the Memetic theory of religion.

[1] The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods (Discover Magazine)

[3] The Recursive Mind by Michael Corballis, pp. 137-138

[4] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas by Iikka Pyysiainen

[5] What Does God Know? Supernatural Agents’ Access to Socially Strategic and Non‐Strategic Information (Cognitive Science)

The Origin of Religion – Part 1

The BBC published its second of two posts on the origin of religion, and it’s a doozy. The first article explored the deep roots of religion in the behavior of various non-human species: How and why did religion evolve? (BBC)

This second part takes on why religious thought exists in humans specifically, drawing on a variety of theories and disciplines, from evolutionary psychology, to anthropology, to sociology, to neuroscience. The thinkers the author reference in the article include Pascal Boyer, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, Justin Barrett, Robin Dunbar, and Robert Bellah.

I’m going to pair this with an older article from The Atlantic, Is God and Accident?, which posits that religion was, in essence, an “accident” due to the unique way our brains have evolved to process information, and covers some of the same ground. I’ll supplement these with other sources.

Two Theories

Two common theories of why religion developed are: 1.) religion evolved to calm our existential fear of death, and 2.) religion evolved to create intragroup cohesion via shared concepts and rituals (i.e. to bind people together). Or, religious beliefs are shibboleths: they evolved to divide the social world into “us” and “them.”

But there are a few problems with these narratives. When you take a look at most primitive religions, there is no “big picture” philosophical explanation for the mystery of human existence. There is no “country club” afterlife that people are looking forward to as in Western (particularly American Protestant) Christianity. There is no “better place” after death—just a different one. In many ancestor-veneration cultures (which I have proposed as the original form of religion), the ancestors simply dwell “under the earth”. It’s hardly a pleasant afterlife.

This chthonic idea—that spirits dwell somewhere below the earth—is so universal that I think there must be something fundamental to it. It was present in all the Near Eastern religions, and is implicit in the Hebrew term for the grave, sheol (Heaven and Hell are conspicuously absent from the Old Testament). It was present in Greek culture too. Even the remote Pirahã of the Amazon believe the spirits of their departed ancestors dwell somewhere beneath the earth.

My guess is that this comes from our tradition of disposing with dead bodies by ritually burying them, which goes all the way back to the dawn of cognitively modern humans. Burials—especially with grave goods—are used by archaeologists as a proxy for when something like religion first emerged.

Here’s a good description of death rituals and beliefs in the Ancient Near East (ANE):

In death a person gave up his or her breath and became a ghost (etemmu). The bodies of the deceased were sometimes buried under a special section of their own house rather than in a separate tomb. As in other ANE cultures, the oldest son was responsible for maintaining such duties as providing the dead with food and drink and other supplies; he was also expected to regularly pronounce their names to ensure that the dead were not forgotten by the living.

Particularly important in this regard was the kipsu banquet, to which dead ancestors would be invited and from whom blessing on the living would be sought. As in other ANE thought, the living could contact the dead (through a medium or necromancer) and the ghosts of the dead could affect the circumstances of the living. Restless ghosts were considered particularly malevolent and were thus especially feared. Accordingly, imitative magic and numerous spells were designed to ward off such malevolent ghosts or demons, such as those thought to attack people sexually at night, or those who were considered responsible for what we refer to as cot death or sudden infant death syndrome. p. 12

The underworld itself was commonly referred to as ‘the Great City’, ‘the Great Below’, or ‘the Land of No Return.’ It was believed to have three tiers: the lowest level was the court of the gods of the underworld; the middle level was the watery realm of the deity Apsu; and the upper level immediately under the earth’s surface was the ‘residence of the spirits of men’. The entrance was supposedly in the west, where Shamash (the sun god) was believed to go down at night and travel under the earth before resurfacing in the east the following morning. To access the underworld, the dead had to cross a river with the aid of a boatman called Remove-hastily. Presumably the sooner he carried out his task the better! [1]

Meanwhile, in ancient Greek tribal culture:

At death the psyche or soul, which entered the body at birth, leaves again like a puff of wind and – so long as the deceased has been properly buried – goes to the underworld. Here the dead exist as insubstantial ‘shades’ or ‘shadows’ of their former selves, without strength or pleasure. While normally confined to the realm of the dead, the deceased may occasionally reappear as ghosts who can haunt or communicate with the living. As in the ANE, proper care of the dead was therefore paramount; indeed, improper care could bring their ghosts back to haunt the negligent, because in Greek mythology the unburied dead were not allowed to enter Hades.

[Hades] is portrayed as a remote place, far below the earth, dark and dismal, and utterly devoid of hope. For the most part, all the dead, regardless of social rank or status, share the same experience; this was clearly not a happy one – even for the heroic dead. Achilles, for example, famously remarks that he would rather be the hired servant of a poor farmer on earth than lord of all the withered dead in the underworld’ (Od. 11.489-491). Yet this was not perceived as a place of punishment or retributive justice; rather, it was simply the grim and gloomy destiny that all men would inevitably share. There was no hope of any physical return from death; the only hope of immortality lay in making a name for oneself, one that would be perpetually remembered by those on earth. So all in all, Homer’s view of death and the afterlife is almost entirely negative. ibid.

And China, with its long (and enduring) tradition of ancestor worship, was quite similar:

According to ancient beliefs, each person had a spirit which required the offering of sacrifices, not just royal figures. It was thought that an individual had two souls. After death, one of these souls, the po, rose to heaven while the other one, the hun, remained in the body of the deceased. It was this second soul that required regular offerings of nourishment. Eventually, the hun soul would migrate to the fabled Yellow Springs of the afterlife, but until that time, if the family did not want the spirit of their dead relation to trouble them as a wandering hungry ghost, they had to take certain precautions. The first was to bury the dead with all the essential daily objects (or models of them) they would need in the next life from food to tools. Next, to ensure the corpse remained at peace, it was necessary to offer appropriate and regular offerings.

Ancestor Worship in Ancient China (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

In The Ancient City, Fustel de Coulanges, who also argued for ancestor worship as primordial form of religion and the key to understanding ancient cultural institutions, notes the similarities between Greek, Roman and Hindu ancestor worship:

The Hindu, like the Greek, regarded the dead as divine beings, who enjoyed a happy existence; but their happiness depended on the condition that the offerings made by the living should be carried to them regularly. If the Śrāddha for a dead person was not offered regularly, his soul left its peaceful dwelling, and became a wandering spirit, who tormented the living; so that, if the dead were really gods, this was only whilst the living honored them with their worship.

The Greeks and Romans had exactly the same belief. If the funeral repast ceased to be offered to the dead, they immediately left their tombs, and became wandering shades, that were heard in the silence of the night. They reproached the living with their negligence; or they sought to punish them by afflicting them with diseases, or cursing their soil with sterility. In a word, they left the living no rest till the funeral feasts were re-established. The sacrifice, the offering of nourishment, and the libation restored them to the tomb, and gave them back their rest and their divine attributes. Man was then at peace with them…

These human souls deified by death were what the Greeks called demons, or heroes. The Latins gave them the name of Lares, Manes, Genii. “Our ancestors believed,” says Apuleius “that the Manes, when they were malignant, were to be called larvae; they called them Lares when they were benevolent and propitious.” Elsewhere we read, “Genius and Lar is the same being; so our ancestors believed.” And in Cicero, “Those that the Greeks called demons we call Lares.” The  Ancient City, p. 17

So, it turns out that most ancient religions weren’t all that reassuring when it came to life after death after all! Nor was any kind of supernatural reward or punishment involved. Mostly, it seems, the dead were just ephemeral ghosts who had to be buried with the proper rituals and appeased through regular feasts and commemorations so that they wouldn’t come back to haunt the living. As Bruce Carpenter remarked of Balinese ancestor worship, “It’s like having a representative in Congress,” describing the ongoing reciprocal relationship between families and their departed ancestors.

This seems to be almost universal in the large cultures we are familiar with. We see it all over the world. The concepts of Heaven or Paradise (along with Hell) came much, much later in history, and mostly in Western monotheistic cultures (the word Paradise comes from Persia and signifies a walled garden). You will find little of this cushy afterlife in say, for example, traditional Chinese or Japanese religions, much less in other more remote cultures.

[As an aside, I had this thought: Is it possible that cultures that buried their dead saw them as dwelling underneath the earth, whereas cultures who cremated their dead saw them as ascending up to heaven, which is what smoke does when bodies are cremated in the open air? The symbolism of smoke representing a release of the soul floating upwards has been used in some belief systems. This is worthy of exploration.]

Similarly, while it’s true that religious beliefs do often serve as a kind of cultural glue which binds societies together, it does not explain the proliferation of supernatural entities, from ancestral spirits to hungry ghosts to malevolent demons to guardian angels to tutelary deities, to capricious gods. Nor does it explain these diverse approaches to the afterlife, or why there should even be an afterlife at all! In fact, many religious beliefs and practices actually seem counterproductive. Often relatives go deeply into debt to perform funeral rites that look silly to outsiders, just so their dead relatives are sated and don’t curse them with bad luck. As the anthropologist Lionel Tiger remarked, “As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.”

Also recall that primitive religions pretty much never feature either Moralizing High Gods (MHG), not Broad Supernatural Punishment (BSP); two key features of doctrinal monotheistic religions. As we saw above, most invisible entities are potentially mischievous, petty, and cruel, and require constant appeasement. There is no greater existential “reason for existence” articulated by any of these religions. You live, and then you die, and that’s pretty much it; and the afterlife isn’t much better than this one—maybe even worse!

(Of course, some have proposed that the very wastefulness of religion is a form of honest signaling—”skin in the game,” as it were. If we have to contribute something costly to participate, and have something significant to lose, the thinking goes, we are less like to be a cheater or a free rider. Of course, this doesn’t explain the reasons for supernatural entities or an afterlife.)

Thus, neither the “religion as anodyne/opiate” nor the “religion as social glue/fraternity/shibboleth” ideas satisfy all the questions surrounding the origin of religious belief, especially the ones we are most interested in. Something else must be at work. But what?

[T]he religion-as-opiate theory fits best with the monotheistic religions most familiar to us. But what about those people (many of the religious people in the world) who do not believe in an all-wise and just God? Every society believes in spiritual beings, but they are often stupid or malevolent.

Many religions simply don’t deal with metaphysical or teleological questions; gods and ancestor spirits are called upon only to help cope with such mundane problems as how to prepare food and what to do with a corpse—not to elucidate the Meaning of It All.

As for the reassurance of heaven, justice, or salvation, again, it exists in some religions but by no means all. (In fact, even those religions we are most familiar with are not always reassuring. I know some older Christians who were made miserable as children by worries about eternal damnation; the prospect of oblivion would have been far preferable.)

So the opiate theory is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation for the existence of religion.

The major alternative theory is social: religion brings people together, giving them an edge over those who lack this social glue. Sometimes this argument is presented in cultural terms, and sometimes it is seen from an evolutionary perspective: survival of the fittest working at the level not of the gene or the individual but of the social group. In either case the claim is that religion thrives because groups that have it outgrow and outlast those that do not.

In this conception religion is a fraternity, and the analogy runs deep. Just as fraternities used to paddle freshmen on the rear end to instill loyalty and commitment, religions have painful initiation rites—for example, snipping off part of the penis.

Also, certain puzzling features of many religions, such as dietary restrictions and distinctive dress, make perfect sense once they are viewed as tools to ensure group solidarity. The fraternity theory also explains why religions are so harsh toward those who do not share the faith, reserving particular ire for apostates…

This theory explains almost everything about religion—except the religious part. It is clear that rituals and sacrifices can bring people together, and it may well be that a group that does such things has an advantage over one that does not. But it is not clear why a religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, divine creation of the universe, and so on brought in? The theory doesn’t explain what we are most interested in, which is belief in the supernatural.

Is God an Accident? (The Atlantic)

Hence the “accidental” (or side effect) theory of religion. As the Atlantic article states, “Enthusiasm is building among scientists for a quite different view—that religion emerged not to serve a purpose but by accident…” : In the terminology of evolutionary biology, “religion is either a spandrel or an exaption.”

.. the term “spandrels” [is] a structure that merely follows from the existence of some other (evolved) structures, without itself being an adaptation. “Exaptation” refers to new roles played by evolutionarily old features that are adaptations in the strict sense of the term. Adaptations in this sense are features that are selected to perform their current function. [2]…Standard examples are the reptilian bones of the jaw that get adopted for the middle ear by mammals. Our ability to do mathematics is an exaption of various syntax-modules and modules that do trivial combinatories (“Are any of my babies missing?”). The ability to get embroiled in fictional worlds is an exaption of our ability to conduct thought-experiments as a part of forward planning. [3]

These “spandrels” and “exaptions” became co-opted by our brains to create religion. And, once that happened, religion, in turn, encouraged reciprocal altruism to evolve. In other words, we used religion—a by-product of our own cognitive evolutionary legacy—to bootstrap our way into becoming the unusually cooperative species we are today.

When one thinks of the many pages that have been written about religion uniting people into a moral community, it is not particularly surprising to learn that some anthropologists, biologists, and philosophers now claim that it is precisely religion that has helped reciprocal altruism to evolve. Ferren MacIntyre, for example, argues that religious affiliations have acted as a kind of “kinship surrogate” that helped our ancestors to develop cooperation among large groups of nonkin.

In the “standard model” of the cognitive science of religion, however, religion is instead a by-product based on “runaway” evolutionary processes extended beyond their initial domain. Evolution has built certain structures and mechanisms of mind that are adaptations to certain Pleistocene conditions; religion is made possible by these structures and mechanisms, although they did not originally develop for this purpose. [2]

Basically, according to this theory, the core characteristics of all religions boil down to two primary things:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain the ubiquitousness of belief in disembodied souls, or “spirits”, in whatever cultural form they happen to take. Even nineteenth-century rationalists made serious attempts to contact the dead (e.g. William James and Arthur Conan Doyle)

Purely physical things, such as rocks and trees, are subject to the pitiless laws of Newton. Throw a rock, and it will fly through space on a certain path; if you put a branch on the ground, it will not disappear, scamper away, or fly into space. Psychological things, such as people, possess minds, intentions, beliefs, goals, and desires. They move unexpectedly, according to volition and whim; they can chase or run away. There is a moral difference as well: a rock cannot be evil or kind; a person can…

Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in [the] brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human…

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world, gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don’t feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

This duality is immediately apparent in our imaginative life. Because we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people’s bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs; in Shrek 2 an ogre is transformed into a human being, and a donkey into a steed; in Star Trek a scheming villain forcibly occupies Captain Kirk’s body so as to take command of the Enterprise; in The Tale of the Body Thief, Anne Rice tells of a vampire and a human being who agree to trade bodies for a day; and in 13 Going on 30 a teenager wakes up as thirty-year-old Jennifer Garner. We don’t think of these events as real, of course, but they are fully understandable; it makes intuitive sense to us that people can be separated from their bodies, and similar transformations show up in religions around the world. [4]

Second, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us intuitive animists and creationists.

In 1944 the social psychologists Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel made a simple movie in which geometric figures—circles, squares, triangles—moved in certain systematic ways, designed to tell a tale. When shown this movie, people instinctively describe the figures as if they were specific types of people (bullies, victims, heroes) with goals and desires, and repeat pretty much the same story that the psychologists intended to tell. Further research has found that bounded figures aren’t even necessary—one can get much the same effect in movies where the “characters” are not single objects but moving groups, such as swarms of tiny squares.

Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist at Fordham University, was the first modern scholar to notice the importance of this tendency as an explanation for religious thought. In his book Faces in the Clouds, Guthrie presents anecdotes and experiments showing that people attribute human characteristics to a striking range of real-world entities, including bicycles, bottles, clouds, fire, leaves, rain, volcanoes, and wind. We are hypersensitive to signs of agency—so much so that we see intention where only artifice or accident exists. As Guthrie puts it, the clothes have no emperor. [4]

As a direct consequence of the evolution of the human social brain, and owing to the importance of our theory-of-mind skills in that process, we sometimes can’t help but see intentions, desires, and beliefs in things that haven’t even a smidgeon of a neural system. In particular, when inanimate objects do unexpected things, we sometimes reason about them just as we do for oddly behaving—or misbehaving—people. More than a few of us have kicked our broken-down vehicles in the sides and verbally abused our incompetent computers. Most of us stop short of actually believing these objects possess mental states—indeed, we would likely be hauled away to an asylum if we genuinely believed that they held malicious intent—but our emotions and behaviors toward such objects seem to betray our primitive, unconscious thinking: we act as though they’re morally culpable for their actions.

So it would appear that having a theory of mind was so useful for our ancestors in explaining and predicting other people’s behaviors that it has completely flooded our evolved social brains. As a result, today we overshoot our mental-state attributions to things that are, in reality, completely mindless. And all of this leads us, rather inevitably, to a very important question: What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?…[5]

As we became smarter and our brains larger, we dragged along this “cognitive baggage” of our evolutionary past. It remains with us to this day, and forms the basis of many of the idiosyncratic beliefs we associate with religious belief, and superstition more broadly.

But there’s still a bit more to it than that. With the help of that BBC article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the “cognitive modules” that helped religious belief evolve. My understanding is that while each of these modules is important in the construction of religious thought, none of them by themselves is sufficient to account for religion. Rather, it is the intersection of all of them that gives rise to the uniquely human phenomenon we call “religion” (although ancient societies would have not made any such distinction between religion and other aspects of their social and cultural lives).

[1] “Death and the Afterlife – Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions,” by Paul R Williamson, p. 13

[2] Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas, by Iikka Pyysiainen, p. 31

[3] Thomas Forster Tries to Understand Julian Jaynes, p. 5 (PDF)

[4] Is God an Accident? The Atlantic, December 2005

[5] Are You There God? It’s Me, Brain. Slate Magazine, February 2011

House Conundrum

Another personal update.

I thought I’d start out with this little fun fact, since I write so much about ancient and medieval history here. I spoke with my dad’s cousin this week. Her husband went on Ancestry.com doing some genealogical research, and she suggested he look up her last name (which we share).

According to her, he found a family tree ending with my great-grandfather and extending back to—and I don’t know if I’ll believe this until I actually see it—805 AD!!!

So, apparently my family, the H***e family can trace its ancestry back to around the time when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope Leo (800 AD), and 40 years before the Vikings sacked Paris (845 AD). We apparently come from a line of counts—minor mobility. That in itself is interesting, since the European title count comes from the Roman title comes, meaning companion or delegate of the Roman emperor. Maybe I can convince some Alt-right types to make me their rightful ruler.

I also found some papers from my great-grandfather, Otto, on my mother’s side (mother’s father’s father). Not as exotic as finding out your distant relatives were counts during the Dark Ages, but I did find out he was born in 1878 in Altendorf, Prussia (seven years after Germany became a country). My German isn’t good enough to make out much more than that.

Pretty sure this is my grandfather (1908-1968). Not the count side of the family, but he does look the part in this photo!

Kinda makes the fact that I’m the very last H***e alive a bit more poignant, I guess. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

###

My current situation consists mainly of trying to unload my mother’s house. This is the house my grandparents built in 1941.

Brand new – 1941

The house has serious foundation problems. VERY serious, as in there are significant cracks (up to half an inch wide) on all four walls of the basement, plus significant bowing of up to an inch. My guess is that the original builders were just not very good, and simply backfilled with earth, without taking any sort of water-protection measures. The grading slope away form the house is nonexistent, meaning that drainage is poor, plus there are no eaves or rakes to give some distance between runoff and the foundation, as you can see. There are gutters, but lots can go wrong with gutters.


(As as side note, eaves and rakes exist for a reason!)

The frost line in Wisconsin is 4′-0″ below grade, so based on the cracks, I’m guessing the freeze/thaw cycle in the first four feet of earth simply pushed against the foundation for seventy-odd years, and this is the inevitable result.

Water damage in the basement.

I don’t know whether this was typical for building at the time. My neighbors mentioned that they have no problems with their house, which I can tell from old photographs must have been built at the same time. Was their house built better, or had some previous owner done the work?

There is also water in the basement. Without some sort of destructive examination method, I cannot verify the source, but I believe it is coming in from above, and not through the wall itself. It looks as if where the stoop meets the house, there is a gap allowing water in from above. Again, fixable but expensive.

It’s deferred maintenance. My mother was far too poor to do the type of maintenance needed on a house like this, as was my grandmother.

So, basically, it’s kind of a wreck. Not a tear-down, fortunately, but hardly a sound investment.

(As a side note, owning a house in a Siberian climate like Wisconsin is just a losing proposition. I know what moisture and freeze/thaw cycles do. It’s a never-ending cycle of repair costs that will never pencil out).

(As another aside, a crumbling foundation is a good metaphor for the county more generally these days.)

So, just another bad break in a life chock full of them, I guess 🙁

Sometime in the 1960’s

Which means I have a couple options. I can either sell it ‘as is,’ or invest the money to repair the foundations myself and hope-against-hope that I can find a buyer, however long that takes.

Last week, I had some gentlemen come out to look at the house. It was three young (very young, I’m guessing in their 20’s) Hispanic gentlemen who buy houses, renovate them, and sell them. I think they’re pretty local—one of them said he even grew up in the neighborhood.

I liked these guys. They were not some national firm; they were local. They were entrepreneurial in the good sense—making money by improving neighborhoods and making them a better place. This neighborhood is quite the hot neighborhood right now with Midwestern Hipster/Lumbersexual breeder-types for raising families.

They made an offer of $65,000. They obviously emphasized the fact that they would have to excavate and repair the foundation walls, which isn’t cheap. They said it was a fair offer, and I believe them. I don’t think anyone else in their line of work would offer more. In fact, I had another home buyer walk through a few weeks earlier and he never called me back (the fact that there was a dead mouse in the basement toilet probably didn’t help).

Mom and grandpa. 1950 or therabouts

I got a spit-ball estimate of basement repair. It would cost $35,000 just to repair the basement, which I would have to pay upfront, of course. And that’s just for starters. I would also have to remove a fir tree from alongside the house–another $1,000. Then there are minor issues, like damaged walls and cabinets from my mom’s chronic smoking habit; the lack of GFI outlets near the sinks; the old, ugly carpeting; outdated appliances, and so on and so on…

If all those repairs/upgrades were made, one realtor estimated I could get from $120,000-140,000 for it. I’m a little skeptical of those numbers, but I estimate perhaps $100,000-110,000 is more realistic. According to Zillow, the median home in Town of Lake is $143,500, with similar houses (albeit in better condition) selling for $150-180,000. The city evaluated the house as $149,000, which is far above what it’s worth.


If I chose to repair the house, I’m stuck paying a huge amount of costs upfront, with the hope that I will be able to sell it later, and who knows how long that will take? Who knows what the Market will be like? Selling a house is a long, painful, arduous process for anyone. I’d have to engage a realtor, and even the realtor I spoke to charges 3.99 percent (lower than the usual 6 percent, but still…).

Pro tip: don’t plant trees near the house or the underground sewer lines.

To add yet another minor wrinkle, the next-door neighbor asked if I would consider renting the place out. It turns out that they are putting their house up for sale next month (August). Apparently they are building a house (!!) and would need a place to stay in the meantime.

I suppose if I rented it out, I’d make some money on it. But the basement would still be crumbling. All the other problems would still be there, festering. I’d still have to pay all the costs, like insurance and utilities, and do maintenance. Of course, I would receive rent money to help cover that, but it’s still a lot of hassle. And I’d be stuck here in the meantime.

This whole thing has been going on almost two years now. I never thought it would still not be resolved this far after the fact. Personally, I’m ready just to be done with the whole business and move on with my life.

But what life?

###

I’m leaning towards accepting the offer of the home buyers. I’ve asked them to submit an offer in writing to my attorney for review.

There is still a $10,000 mortgage on the house, because as I explained in my last “personal” post, my uncle insisted on getting his share. He probably made more on the house back in 1993 than I will here in 2019, despite doing absolutely nothing. So it goes, I guess.

Back when children played outdoors.

So I have to pay that off. The major claim against the estate is my mother’s home equity loan (HELOC), which I’ve been paying out-of-pocket for the last year. That’s about $11,0000. Then there are the attorney fees, of course, and I have no idea how much that will be.

The other issue is that the probate proceedings were supposed to be wrapped up in August. I’m told by the attorney that we can file an extension to deal with that issue. But does it really benefit me for this to drag out even further?

###

Reader bleg: any advice here? What would you do if you were in my position?

###

As for my employment situation, I kind of fell into a job a few months ago. I thought I was finished, but the agency that had placed me with the architecture firm got me a few interviews. I explained to them what happened at the previous firm, and even the hiring fellow said, “Oh yeah, they can be kind of cliquey.” Um, yeah, now you tell me!

(As an aside, in my initial interview at unnamed architectural firm, my interviewer said that “We’re like a family here,” or words to that effect. My instinct told me–and I’m dead serious– to refuse the job on the spot right then and there and walk out of the interview. In hindsight, I should have listened to my instinct.)

Anyway, I got an interview at an MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) firm in Oak Creek. I thought, I might as well go, because I didn’t think I would actually get the job. I mean, I’m an architect, not a mechanical engineer. As I said in the interview, we architects only thing about two things when it comes to mechanical: make it fit within my ceiling plenum, and make sure there are dampers at all fire penetrations. But they insisted that they actually wanted someone with an architectural background to work for them.

Well, I got the job. I think it really is true—the less you care, the better you do in interviews.

This video embedded below should give you some idea of the gist of my work. The gory details aren’t important.

I’ve been working there since then. The experience could not be more different. I constantly hear about what a good job I’m doing, how everyone says I’ve helped them out tremendously, how they hope I don’t leave, etc.

(Which brings up yet another aside: how much one’s fortunes are based on sheer luck. I mean, I’m the same person I was before. I didn’t just gain 20 IQ points overnight. I didn’t gain any new capabilities. It’s simply the environment, and not anything you do. It’s just luck, regardless of what anyone wrapped up in their bullshit self-attribution fantasies suggests.)

So, anyway, despite my best efforts, I do have a job again. Of course, since I never do anything (besides write this blog), go anywhere, or buy anything, I sock away every penny because, as I have learned, those may be the last pennies I may ever earn under American-style Neoliberal capitalism. And after that you’re on your own.

###

I’ve been wondering whether or not I have PTSD. I mean, I’ve never been in combat. I’ve never seen people killed in front of me. I’ve never had to pull the trigger on anyone. I don’t want to make light of those things. There are many people who have been asked to do those things, and their suffering should not be trivialized. And certainly, many people have had much worse breaks than me (I?).

But I still have nightmares. I have panic attacks. Yes, I occasionally still have suicidal thoughts. I think a lot about the fact that I am all alone—utterly, totally alone. It’s hard to go through the quotidian traumas and vicissitudes of life that way. It’s hard to have no safety net in country that thinks Socialism is a dirty word. But it’s not like I’m the only one in that situation, after all.

I don’t trust anyone. I don’t believe anyone, anymore. I’m constantly waiting for the hammer to fall, or the other shoe to drop, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I wish I could say I feel secure, but I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will.

Is it possible for an economic system to give one PTSD?

###

Anyway, at least I can pay the bills right now, and I guess that’s enough. But where do you go when you could go anywhere?

I admit to being delinquent with replying to all those who wrote to me last time. Since I’ve started working again, I’ve tended to devote my free time to writing new posts, and I have a bunch I’m currently working on. But, I assure you, I still have them all, and hope to get around to replying some day. Thanks!

Who would want to leave all this???

BONUS: Former homeless people, what did you need the most? What was the best thing someone did for you? (AskReddit)

Independence Day 2019

It’s a surreal experience to wake up on Independence Day to a country that is:

  1. Having a Soviet-style military parade, complete with tank procession, in the capital.
  2. Has concentration camps, complete with the aggressive and violent dehumanization of those interred, on the border.

That’s just before you get to all the other Soviet/Fascist-style facets of the modern-day Republic:

  1. Mass surveillance and incarceration of the citizenry (if prisons and jails were a state, they’d be larger than 15 different U.S. states).
  2. Multiple media organs that are outright, bald-faced agitprop (albeit co-existing alongside a nominally “free” press).
  3. Political brawling in the streets.
  4. Paramilitary groups threatening to kill police over a political conflict.
  5. “Cultural Marxism” as a mainstream political concept (taken seriously even by people who don’t typically consider themselves extremists).
  6. Nuremberg-style political rallies, complete with demonization of opponents and the non-allied press.
  7. The valorization of guard labor of all stripes (military, police, mercenaries, whatever) as unqualified “heroes” showered by unequivocal adulation.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember when those things didn’t exist in America. And I’m not that old!

The wholesale disintegration of the fabric of American society continues unabated. And every year I wonder the same thing: just how bad does it have to get? I saw a Twitter post that read “When you’re discussing what precisely constitutes a ‘concentration camp’, you’re already fucked.” Yep, well said.
It feels like creeping normality is inexorably sweeping us along to our ultimate destination: the inevitable sequel to World War Two that we have all been waiting for (something about humans tends to like sets of three). I’m afraid that this time, though, we (Americans) may actually turn out to be the baddies.

And no one can talk about it. If you do, “Godwin’s Law” is immediately invoked, along with a hefty dose of the customary “It Can’t Happen Here” mentality.

But the problem with the knee-jerk invocation Godwin’s so-called “Law”, though, is that it says that absolutely no comparisons can be made until the NASDAP literally reappears in our midst, complete with black-clad, jackbooted secret police, Totenkopf badges, extermination camps, and stiff-armed loyalty pledges.

Even in Germany that stuff didn’t happen overnight. Do things really have to get that bad??? The childish invocation of Godwin’s Law is as bad as the childish behavior the “law” is supposed to ridicule.

I mean, do we literally need to have extermination camps in our backyards before any valid historical comparisons can be made? From some people’s attitudes, it sure seems like it.

I’m afraid we may well see the end of Democracy in the United States in our lifetimes—in practice, though perhaps not in law. For example, in Wisconsin (I’m going for memory, so don’t quote me on this), but something like 54% percent of us vote for Democrats, yet Republicans maintain their majority in the state legislature. And thanks to gerrymandering, unless some almost impossible supermajority of the state votes for the opposition (something like 3/4 of the electorate), the Republicans will have essentially a permanent, iron-clad grip on Wisconsin’s state legislature, forever.

And the Supreme Court—which has been packed for years—just declared that such election-fixing is perfectly legal (or at least nothing can be done about it).

…when the Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it was a watershed moment in American history. For the first time, a president who lost the popular vote had a supreme court nominee confirmed by senators who received fewer votes – nearly 22 million fewer – than the senators that voted against him. And by now, it will not surprise you to discover that the senators who voted for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh represent 38 million fewer people than the ones who voted no.

With the supreme court in hand, all those other tactics – partisan gerrymandering, voter ID and the rest – are protected from the only institution that could really threaten them. But it doesn’t stop there. The supreme court can be used to do more than approve the minority rule laws that come before it. It can further the project on its own.

Rigging the vote: how the American right is on the way to permanent minority rule (The Guardian)

Then there’s the issue of disenfranchisement due to the majority of Americans living in urban areas, something America’s outdated and antiquated electoral system is not designed to accommodate (each Wyoming voter has 66 times the electoral power of a California voter in the Senate). As Brad DeLong pointed out:

  • 180.8 million people are represented by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.
  • 141.7 million people are represented by the 52 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.
  • 65.9 million people voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tim Kaine to be their president and vice president
  • 63.0 million people voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence to be their president and vice president.

https://www.bradford-delong.com/2018/10/remind-yourself-representation.html

Of course, roughly half of Americans (sometimes over half) don’t vote at all, forming the largest voting bloc in America (the resigned apathy party).

And that’s before all the other things: the “policing” of voting places by right-wing paramilitary thugs, the understaffing of urban polling places, etc. The voter ID law passed here in Wisconsin which was expressly designed (according to its proponents) to suppress voter turnout among minorities and college-educated young people (who move around a lot). North Dakota has a similar law (which disproportionately disenfranchises Native Americans).

And then there’s the electoral college. This article does a good job of explaining why it has no real reason to exist. Two of the last three presidents have lost the popular vote.

And there are proposals are on the table to restrict voting access even further. It’s a formula permanent minority rule. And that’s scary. When the people can’t express their popular will through the ballot box, what do you do?

And this is allegedly a “democracy?”

And we all feel so impotent and helpless because nothing ever changes. When was the last time a problem got solved in America???

Anyway, no sweeping conclusion; these are just rambling thoughts this Fourth of July holiday. I wish I had solutions, but the only hope I have for humanity right now comes from looking at what people are doing in places outside the borders of this benighted country.

Aztec Society, Historical Myths, and Understanding Collapse

Still working on that religion post and some others, but in the meantime, I’ve wanted to post this interview that I ran across on the BBC’s Civilizations podcast for years now. This particular episode concentrates on civilizational collapse, which is obviously of interest to me and, I suspect, to readers of the blog (if they exist LoL).

The first half of the podcast, however, is an interview with an expert on Mesoamerican civilization, Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, who dispels a lot of the common myths about that culture. Some of this information will be relevant soon, when we talk about the economics of New World empires (hopefully coming soon?). But for now, read and learn (lightly edited for clarity):

On the Aztec practice of human sacrifice:

“Human sacrifice is what everybody knows about the Aztecs. And they certainly do practice human sacrifice on an extraordinarily large scale. What we do know is that this is actually a very sophisticated, very compassionate, very cultured civilization where death is not held cheap…

Sacrifice for them is a religious act, and they believe that if they don’t sacrifice people, then the world will come to an end. It’s part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, where the gods nourish and nurture them, and they have to feed the gods with blood to keep the world turning, essentially. And they believe that if you die as a sacrifice, then you will go to a sort of privileged afterlife; it’s almost like a martyrdom. And so it’s a way of attaining privilege in the afterlife in a culture that doesn’t believe you get a very nice here-and-now, as it were.”

“And so they construct this very complex belief system in which sacrifice becomes something that is supposed to be a privilege. Something which to me is very vital in understanding Aztec culture is the fact that they have a universal education system. Both men and women are educated institutionally; where both learn at home from their families about day-to-day jobs like fishing and weaving and so on. And young men go into schools to learn to be priests and warriors. There is a third school which doesn’t get talked about—the cuicacalli—the ‘House of Song’. As teenagers, young men and young women go separately to this place to learn the history, mythology, and religion of their culture.”

“Now, you might call that indoctrination. But it’s really, really important for understanding why Aztec culture can commit human sacrifice without being dehumanized by it to know that every person witnessing it, or participating in it, understood why it was happening. This isn’t like Catholic Europe at the time where all the ceremonies are happening in Latin, and some people understand what’s going on, and other people have quite a vague grasp of the essentials. It is absolutely educated, informed knowledge of what the rituals are meant to represent. And it’s really vital to know that that is happening, because if everybody knows that all these people [who] are being sacrificed are supposedly going to a better place, and it’s essential [so] that the world [doesn’t come] to an end, it becomes possible to see how they might go along with it for reasons other than just kind of cheering at brutality.”

“They train priests in a way that suggests that they don’t think killing people will be very easy, so they go to lengths to separate them from their families; to train them in a very vigorous way much like you would if you were going into the army, maybe, to desensitize the people who were actually going to do the sacrifices. And they don’t have an awful lot of interpersonal violence in their culture. This isn’t a very savage culture as people suggest. Sacrificial violence is certainly normalized, but not day-to-day violence. That’s the thing. Just because people commit human sacrifice, that doesn’t mean they think it’s acceptable to stab their neighbors.”

On the Aztecs being a very ancient culture:

“People think they’re a very ancient culture sitting alongside people like the Egyptians or the Romans in people’s minds. But actually they’re contemporary with things like Henry VIII. They only are conquered in 1521–very, very recently. And actually, they have an extremely developed legal code. Lots and lots of strong rules. Perhaps even stronger, for some things, than in Europe at this time. They do have capital punishment. They have very developed systems of retributive justice, as well as restorative justice. So that means you punish people, but also you have compensation for things. So it’s actually a very complicated culture, and also a very, very recent one, and I think that’s something people forget.”

On whether the Aztec Empire was a brutal dictatorship:

“The Aztecs do have quite strong hierarchies, but they also have a reasonable amount of social mobility.”

“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the ruler an ‘emperor’ because there’s some debate about whether it’s even an empire at all. The real name of the ruler is the Tlatoani—a speaker, ‘he who speaks’, which tells you something about the culture. It’s important that he’s the representative for the society and for the gods. And he is at the head of  a society which has quite a lot of checks and balances. They think it’s really, really important that you be competent in your job. And they have this balance of birth and competence as a way of organizing everything.”

“So, for example, to become the Tlatoani, it’s not the first-born son that gets to do the job. You are elected. We don’t know exactly how—probably nominated from amongst the high nobles. But they pick the person they think will do the best job. So, often it’s a  brother or a younger son of the previous Tlatoani; it’s not always the eldest son—in fact it isn’t usually. You have to be related to the previous Tlatoani, but being the eldest son doesn’t help you at all.”

“And you see these sorts of patterns go all the way down through the society. So they have two levels of nobility: Teuctli, who we usually call ‘lords’; that’s the high nobility. And then the Pilli, who we usually call the ‘nobles’—that’s kind of the low nobility. And you can’t be born a Teuctli – a high lord. You can only be born Pilli. To become Teuctli, you have to attain that through your own achievements. It’s jobs like being the head of the priesthood, or the head of the warriors, or having  senior warrior role. Things like this make you a Teuctli, but you can’t be born that.”

“And people who are born commoners—mācēhualtin—they can become Pilli—nobles–through their achievements, often through being particularly clever, particularly successful in the schools and  in the administration, often through warfare—that’s the most common way—to be a really good warrior. And then occasionally you have stories, for example, of a Tlatoani, a ruler, making someone into a noble just because they’re impressed with them. There’s a famous case of a ruler making a gardener into a noble because he’s so impressed with his honesty. Things like that.”

On social advancement compared to contemporaneous Europe

“One of the things I find most interesting about Aztec culture is that we make assumptions about how savage and ancient it is. And actually in some ways it’s far, far more modern than contemporaneous European civilizations. They have greater social mobility. They have a sort of social care system. They have collective grain storehouses. When you get married, if you’re rich you give capes—that’s the equivalent of currency—you give capes into the collective storehouses, and if you’re poor, you take capes out—you’re given some. So there’s a collective redistribution of wealth to make sure that nobody is too poor to set up their own household.”

“I’m not saying that this is a kind of idealized civilization, but it’s actually a lot better in some ways, I think—for women in particular, maybe—than some contemporaneous European civilizations. You’re allowed to enjoy sex if you’re a woman in this culture. Sex outside of marriage isn’t taboo. You can’t beat your wife. Men and women inherit property equally. Things like this.”

On the role and status of women in such a warlike society

“The fact that warfare is the principal focus of this civilization in many contexts certainly means that there are areas of life from which women are excluded. So they can’t attain high political office, because the high political offices are synonymous with high warrior offices and high priest offices, and they can’t do either of those things. On the other hand, we know that women were also scribes; they were  painters; they were the people who kept the records, which is a hugely skilled job. They must have been very, very important.”

“Childbirth is so interesting because it’s seen as the equivalent of warfare for women. They talk about having children as ‘capturing’ a baby; that the woman had borne the ‘small shield’; that she has returned ‘victorious from battle’–all these kinds of words. And they are honored as parents of warriors.”

“Warfare and childbirth are seen as equivalent fates for men and women. You can see that if you look at what happens in the afterlife. After you die, as a sacrificial victim or in battle, the man would spend four years accompanying the sun; carrying the sun god to its zenith at midday. What they then do, is hand the sun at midday, it’s believed, over [into] the hands of the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth, and they carry the sun to its setting. So you can see this parallel being drawn very clearly between the souls of men who’ve died in sacrifice and in battle, and the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth. It brings equal honor in the afterlife.”

On comparisons to European (Christian) Monotheism

“One of the real problems we have as historians of the Aztec world is that all our sources, except the archaeology, are from after the conquest…so everything we’re reading is reliant on the viewpoint of colonial Spanish men, usually friars. And they don’t want to see a similarity between Aztec religion and Christianity.”

“But, of course, both of them are based around this idea of blood sacrifice. There is, at the heart of Christianity, a sacrifice of blood…if you were a thousand years in the future, and Christianity had died out, and people were just looking at the texts of Christianity, wouldn’t you think maybe they were actual cannibals? Because you talk all the time about eating the body and blood of Christ. How would you read them if you simply took them cold with no contextual information? And so there’s actually a fascinating parallel–this focus on blood as a mythical, a religious, a spiritual totem, is something which is at the heart of Christianity as well as at the heart of Aztec culture.”

“Of course, the Europeans use concepts of their own to try and make this culture comprehensible to them. And it’s not that they see no cultural similarities, or things to admire. They very much admire how devout [the Aztecs] are. A lot of missionaries early on say, ‘obviously they’ve been very misguided in their religion, but they’re such devout people. If only we could bring them to the knowledge of the true God, they would be the most Christian Christians in the world.’ They hate the human sacrifice, but they actually don’t have any trouble understanding that this is from a religious point of view. Don’t forget, this is a society in which violence for religion is very, very familiar. This is a society where—if you think of early modern Spain—where it is very normal that people are being burned alive for being heretics, or crushed between stones, or stoned to death. It’s not unusual…”

And then the interviewer talks to Dr. Guy Middleton, an archaeological “collapsologist” about the realities of civilizational collapse as opposed to the sensationalized Hollywood movies and documentaries:

Guy Middleton (guest): “You wouldn’t find in the archaeological literature that kind of very sudden, very dramatic picture being drawn. You’d find a lot more cautious, a lot more nuanced positions being put forward.”

Viv Jones (host): “There’s a common story about how the Maya civilization collapsed, which you may have come across in articles and documentaries. The story goes, that a period of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands. The Maya were powerless to prevent their own demise as food and water run out. Eventually the jungle reclaimed their palaces and pyramids. But…”

GM: “The megadrought story is very much a modern myth. Even if we accept that there were droughts—and undoubtedly there were; we know there were droughts there in historical times—the Maya area itself was very big and made up of very many—tens or hundreds of independent little states and big states. I think the idea that one massive megadrought killed off all the Maya and caused the collapse of their societies is wrong.”

VJ: “We do know that in the ninth century, many cities in the region were abandoned. What’s unclear is what happened to the people who were living there.”

GM: That’s the million-dollar question. Talking about one Maya collapse is a bit misleading. What we call the collapse of the classic Maya is really a process that takes 200-300 years to play out. And it plays out differently in different regions. So, sites in the north collapse around 1000 or 1050 AD; sites in the south are collapsing in the late 700’s AD. So you’ve got different trajectories, in different cities, in different areas. I think you get a decline in birthrate that happens over this 200-300 year period. So there’s not a certain depopulation. Some sites are abandoned–that’s absolutely right. But you get new cities coming up. It’s different across the whole Maya region.

VJ: So the Maya civilization didn’t suffer one collapse. It’s likely that different kingdoms met very different ends. Along with droughts, there was also a lot of warfare between different Maya kingdoms, and that caused populations to fall, and some cities to be abandoned. This period of sharp decline ended 900 years ago. Very few Maya settlements remained, but some were still thriving when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

GM: “What really did for it, for traditional Maya society, was the Spanish. It’s something like a barbarian invasion. What I find particularly interesting is that you’ve got the very last independent Maya kingdom,–which was a kingdom called Nojpetén–that was only destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. And that’s really close to us in time. And it’s about 900 years after people place the Maya collapse. So they don’t disappear en masse, and they still have a complex culture which the Spanish encountered.”

“But when the Spanish come in, they behave particularly appallingly. For example, they take the children of the nobility to build schools for them and to basically brainwash them into a Catholic culture, and to reject their own culture. So there was a very deliberate process of cultural destruction performed by the Spanish on the Maya.”

VJ: So how did we end up with this popular idea in books, documentaries, and articles of a massive, apocalyptic Maya collapse brought on by drought?

GM: I think we’ve kind of got an inbuilt draw to these dramatic, sweeping stories. And I think you can go back to Biblical images, which are still very much a part of our society. We’ve got these images of disasters–God destroying cities. And then we’ve got the rise of Hollywood, and disaster films, and it’s quite exciting and dramatic and appealing, in that sense, to what we like from a story…

And Dr. Guy Middleton’s conclusion:

Like people say, you get the history you deserve at a particular point in time. You also get the collapse stories that you deserve at a particular point in time. People have looked at the modern situation and the environmental problems that we face now. We know that we have done terrible things to the environment. We can look at plastic pollution now, but also agricultural industry, and monocultural agriculture, and climate change. And we can look back and say we’ve got bits of evidence that suggest the same things might have been happening. And it’s dubious, in a sense, because the situations of ancient societies are so much different, and we’ve been much, much more destructive than any ancient society.

So I think, in a way, to blame collapse on things like climate change—the evidence doesn’t usually support climate change as a single cause of any collapse. If we do it, we’re kind of stealing people’s histories, and some environmental writers and other people try to use examples of ancient collapse—especially the Maya, and especially the Easter Islanders—as kind of moral tales on how we ought to treat our environment. And the fate of those societies is a fate that we can predict for ourselves if we continue in our immoral, environmentally destructive behavior. But I think that’s not doing history, that’s stealing people’s history–stealing people’s stories for our modern-day Western consumption.

And that’s one of the reasons collapse is so interesting. Because you go back and look at what a society was, and look closely at how it changed and who it changed for in different ways. Our upcoming global collapse will be different in scale, and perhaps number of deaths…

Episode 6: How Civilisations Collapse and Understanding the Aztecs (The Civlizations Podcast, BBC Radio)

History Repeating?

Working on a new post about religion. But in the meantime, reader Gregg Winston asks:

It was reported this week that the City of Chennai, India, home to approximately 4 million people, is almost out of fresh water. It was also reported that the Himalayan glaciers are now melting faster than replacement rate of winter snow. It is now projected that by 2030 (10.5 years from now) 40% of the Indian population (now at 1.38 billion) will be without access to fresh water. This means potentially 600 million refugees on the scene looking for someplace else to live. Surely no government or human social system can stand under such immense stress. Would be curious about your thoughts in future posts.

That mainly gives me the excuse to post the video from the BBC below, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.

But in answer to his question – what can you say about that? To me, this is the greatest vulnerability civilization now faces. He’s right, there is no way 600 million people will be able to migrate. Nor is it likely that some sort of technological solution could be pressed into service in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if the political will and technological capabilities existed (which they don’t).

Just that alone is enough to end civilization as we know it, at least in greater Eurasia. But it will, of course, still be slow-moving enough to stymie any sort of constructive efforts to address the situation. How this will affects North America is questionable. But Russia and China will certainly be in the thick of it.

As you see below, the irony is that the very first large-scale civilization in India was also done in by a changing climate. The Harappan civilization, which thrived on the alluvial plains for millennia and constructed some of the most impressive drainage works of the ancient world, was eventually forced to abandon their cities due to changes in the monsoon. No longer could they practice irrigation agriculture with the change in precipitation. So they moved northward, to the foothills of the Himalayas which were fed by rainfall, and reconstituted their civilization there.

But once they settled in agricultural villages, they did not need such sophisticated engineering and left fewer remains behind. It appears that their civilization experienced a reduction in complexity as well, even losing writing. It’s likely that rain-fed farming did not need the cooperative management and political centralization that irrigation agriculture did. As Wittfogel put it, “the scattered operation of rainfall farming did not involve the establishment of national patterns of cooperation as did hydraulic agriculture.” Gone were the blocks and blocks of identical houses, which had apparently existed peacefully for millennia prior. These folks were likely the ancestors of the Indians who were subjugated by the pastoral Indo-Aryan who invaded from the northern plains later on. That new mixture formed the core of what we know as the Hindu culture.

It was a very similar situation to the Tigris/Euphrates river valley, where a complex Sumerian civilization in the lowlands which depended on inundation (flood) agriculture coexisted and intermingled with northern rain-fed highland villages which spoke the Semitic language of Akkadian, and were probably descendants of the original Natufian farmers. Eventually, the highland inhabitants invaded and subjugated their neighbors on the southern alluvium, and incorporated aspects of their civilization, such as writing and religious ideas.

“Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler… they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable. Everything was arranged. The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture – block after block after block – implies a totalitarian attitude… 2,500 years before Christ… came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like. And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing. The style of building never changed. The language did not change. The first carved amulets are the same as the last.” The Aztec Treasure House, (p. 144)

What that can tell us about a subcontinent of a billion people today, however, is probably quite limited.

The Evolutionary Roots of Alcohol Feasting

Since the previous post was about the role that alcoholic beverages played in domestication, and hence the formation of large-scale societies, I thought I’d share this post that I ran across last week. It goes back to the evolutionary origins of our craving for alcohol.

If it’s correct, it would mean that the seeds for later large-scale social groups were sewn very early in human evolution, even back before we diverged form chimps. Millions of years ago, ancient tree-dwelling primates sought out fermented fruits in the canopy. Millions of years later, this craving would lead to the formation of the first civilizations.

According to the [“drunken monkey” hypothesis, formulated by biologist Robert Dudley in 2000], our pre-human ancestors regularly ingested small amounts of alcohol because the substance is produced when ripe fruit or nectar is decomposed by wild yeast. Through natural fermentation, yeast feeds on plant sugars and produces waste products of CO2 and ethanol — the chemical name for alcohol.

Although this spoils fruit, it presents an opportunity for animals that can digest alcohol. Creatures able to eat fermenting sugars would have an additional source of nutrients. Not only would they consume semi-rotten fruits, passed over by other animals, but alcohol itself has nutritional value: There are nearly twice as many calories in ethanol compared to carbohydrates of the same weight. (While this causes unwanted beer bellies today, extra calories are beneficial in the wild.)

Also, fermentation produces strong odors. An animal attracted to the yeasty scent would be able to follow its nose to edible fruit, and potentially find that food source before creatures without the taste for alcohol. And lastly, as many of us have experienced, alcohol stimulates appetite. Individuals munching on fermented fruit may eat more, obtaining bonus calories and nutrients.

In these ways, developing a taste for alcohol — the low levels found in nature — could have given our ancestors an advantage. In a forest full of animals competing for energy-rich foods, “drunk monkeys” would have access to an untapped resource.

It wasn’t until millions of years later, after Homo sapiens created beverages with unnaturally high ethanol concentrations (i.e. beer, wine, liquor), that alcohol consumption became a social and public health issue. According to Dudley, alcohol abuse and addiction are an “evolutionary hangover” of a deep-routed taste for fermented sugars, adaptive long ago.

‘Drunken Monkey’ Hypothesis: Was Booze an Advantage For Our Ancestors? (Discovery)

Food sharing—the basis for feasting—has been observed in bonobos (but not in chimps):

In the wild, sharing of food by chimps typically happens after a rare hunt, and the “sharing” of meat often involves the passive tolerance of theft or simply giving in to relentless begging and harassment by others.

In contrast, the bonobos voluntarily handed over nuts that were solidly in their possession.

“What we are seeing in bonobos is very unusual,” says Krupenye. “We do see food sharing in other species, but in the vast majority of cases it is that one individual tolerates another taking something from them.”

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that bonobos are uniquely pro-social when it comes to food…

What’s Mine Is Yours, Sort Of: Bonobos And The Tricky Evolutionary Roots Of Sharing (NPR). And, related, scientists have discovered the oldest known evidence of humans cooking carbohydrates in Africa:

More than 100,000 years ago, humans lived in the caves that dot South Africa’s coastline. With the sea on their doorstep and the Cape’s rich diversity of plant life at their backs, these anatomically modern Homo sapiens flourished. Over several millennia, they collected shells that they used as beads, created toolkits to manufacture red pigment, and sculpted tools from bones.

Now some of these caves, along the country’s southern coast, have shed light on humanity’s earliest-known culinary experiments with carbohydrates, a staple in many modern diets. Small pieces of charred tubers found at the Klasies River site in South Africa date back 120,000 years, making them the earliest-known evidence of H. sapiens cooking carbs, according to recent research published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The study joins a suite of new findings that illuminate the evolution of our ancestors’ diet. For example, in recent years, scientists have determined that hominins have been eating meat for at least 2.6 million years —with some researchers contending that hominins were butchering bones for marrow as much as 3.4 million years ago. And hominins were roasting nuts, tubers, and seeds about 780,000 years ago. Humans specifically, as another South African find revealed, ate shellfish some 164,000 years ago. And last year, ancient crumbs revealed that H. sapiens has been eating bread for 14,400 years.

Ancient Campfire Remains Hold Oldest-Known Remains of Humans Cooking Starches (Discover)