Wednesday, October 12, 2016

On Being Anti-Religion

Religion is an obstacle to moral development. According to Kohlberg, the first stage of moral development centers on the individual modifying his/her behavior in order to avoid punishment and earn rewards. Small children, dogs, and adult sociopaths tend to operate at this level of moral development. In the second
stage of moral development, the individual desires to be considered a good person and so conforms to an external system of rules (example: laws, cultural norms, family values, and religion). An internal moral sense cultivated by indoctrination to external belief systems becomes deeply ingrained in people. At this level of development, moral "feelings" are mistaken for undeniable truths. For many reasons, questioning the validity of religious morals can ignite extreme hostility and defensiveness.

The pitfall of uncritically accepting a moral code learned from one’s culture, such as that offered by religion, is that it may include elements that are truly harmful to others. An individual raised in the environment of Nazi Germany would have the same deep commitment to that moral code as anyone indoctrinated into any external moral code.  In the pre-Civil War South, ministers used the Bible to justify the enslavement of other human beings. The Bible and the Koran are currently being used to justify racism and homophobia. The results? Torture, murder, and suicide.

The highest level of moral development requires a critical examination of values using universal litmuses like harm done, fairness, and empathy. Without rational, compassionate evaluation of every aspect of one’s moral code the potential for harm is great. Religion is a barrier to advanced moral development.

Religion inhibits intellectual development. The touchstone for intellectual growth is changing positions when disputing evidence for a pre-existing belief outweighs supporting evidence for said belief. Most of the dominant religions require accepting the legitimacy of their doctrines not on evidence, but on faith. Faith is often considered an admirable quality. I do not understand why. Faith and gullibility seem to be two sides of the same coin. Webster's defines faith as, "(a)firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Gullible means, "easily persuaded to believe something." So, aren't faith and gullibility inseparable? In other words, wouldn't it require gullibility to firmly believe something without proof?

Believing without evidence is a slippery slope. If I choose to accept one supernatural manifestation on faith, am I not then susceptible to believing any absurdity? Talking snakes, invisible deities, angels, pixies, leprechauns, and unicorns are all supported by faith and disputed by reason. How does one justify belief in a god, but not in a pixie, or belief in some other god? Disregarding evidence in favor of faith-based beliefs perpetuates ignorance. Religion is a barrier to advanced intellectual development.

Religion obstructs social development. In a modern global community, appreciation for the benefits of cultural diversity is paramount. Of the six Americans who won Nobel Prizes for Science in 2016, all were immigrants. By nature, religions are exclusionary. They create an "us and them" mentality wherein the "us" are good and the "them," not as good. This kind of social identity has been at the root of every war since the dawn of time. 

Prepackaged, religious beliefs rob people of the opportunity to create personal meaning and to truly define a unique understanding of self separate from cultural definitions. The number one regret of terminally ill patients is that they conformed to the values of others rather than living lives true to themselves. Religion is an impediment to social development.

Religion is a barrier to emotional development. Emotional maturity results from coming to terms with difficult, often frightening, realities. Failure to take responsibility for one's actions is one aspect of emotional immaturity. Children tend to blame others or make excuses for mistakes. Mature adults take responsibility, attempt to make reparations, and try to learn from mistakes. While Christianity holds the individual accountable to a degree, it also provides an easy loophole. Per Christian doctrine, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was absolved of responsibility for his actions before his death because he sincerely asked God's forgiveness. 

Another element of Christianity inconsistent with taking responsibility is the concept of Satan. Satan is ultimately responsible for all evil in the world and God is ultimately responsible for all good. 

By encouraging belief in a fantasy afterlife, religion inhibits adults from maturely coming to terms with mortality. Developing the emotional maturity to deal with the realities of death, unanswered questions, and all of the other uncertainties of human life without resorting to magic and superstition requires courage and unyielding integrity. One must be committed to all truths regardless of how scary or difficult. Religion impedes emotional development.

Given that religion is an obstacle to nearly every domain of human development, I consider it a social ill. It is clear to me that outcomes such as charity, love, kindness, and peace have been mistakenly associated with religion. Historically, the opposite outcomes of greed, hate, cruelty, and conflict have just as often been the fruits of religion. Benevolent outcomes result from empathy, a quality independent of religion. If I value the Greek ideal of the fully developed person, I can not also value a system that prohibits human development. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

How to NEVER be Suckered by Statistics on Race Again!

If you don't understand how statistics work, it is easy to be manipulated by intentionally misleading data. Since the races are not evenly represented in our population (64% White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 4% Asian, 2% two or more races), a direct comparison between races in America on any phenomenon will be racially biased and lead to a false conclusion.

Hypothetically, suppose .1% of all Americans have been falsely arrested. Half of them were white and half were black. Saying that 50% of Americans who were falsely arrested were white and 50% were black is true, but it is a racially biased statistic because it doesn’t account for the fact that 64% of Americans are white and only 12% are black.

To factor out this bias, comparisons must be made per 100 black people and per 100 white people (or per 10,000, or per 100,000, or per 1,000,000). By calculating per 100 black Americans, these same data would show that 64% of the people who were falsely arrested were black. And, per 100 white people, only 12% of people who were falsely arrested were white. Now the data lead to an informed conclusion rather than a biased one.

So, the next time you see statistics on race that fail to show the data per 100,000 (or some other round number), you will know that someone is trying to sucker you!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Who Should Liberals Vote for in the Upcoming Election?

The graph on the left from Political Compass provides some interesting insights into voting patterns. Hillary is further to the right than Donald Trump, but she is less of a dictator. The reasons I hear Republicans give for hating Hillary are Benghazi and the e-mails. Given that equally heinous acts have been perpetrated by Republicans, I am fairly certain that the real reason they hate Hillary is just that she is a Democrat. One thing I have in common with many Republicans is that I find the DNC reprehensible. If nothing else
Republicans are team players. The support they are showing for Donald Trump, an outright buffoon, demonstrates their commitment to the team.

My reasons for disliking Hillary, however, are very different than the reasons most Republicans give. Hillary was the primary beneficiary of Citizens United. Her campaign is being financed by the billionaire class. Studies have shown definitively that bills favored by billionaires have a very high probability of being made into laws, while bills favored by the vast majority of the American people have a near zero probability of being passed. Simply stated, the Republican and Democratic parties do not represent American citizens. Like most of congress, Hillary Clinton represents her benefactors. She is hawkish in foreign policy because armed conflicts funnel tax funds to defense contractors. They, in turn, "donate" to political candidates. In 2015-16, the defense sector donated $27 million to political candidates, $16.4 million to Republicans and $11 million to Democrats.

QUESTION: As a dyed in the wool leftie patriot who wholeheartedly supports our democratic republic and the United States Constitution… Who should I vote for? Regardless of party affiliation, or absence thereof, I would never vote for Donald Trump. He is more akin to a cartoon character than a legitimate presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton who, despite much yelling and screaming to the contrary from both major parties, is actually the mainstream conservative candidate. Gary Johnson (who has no chance of winning) is further to the right than anyone remaining in the race. And although she has an excellent platform, Jill Stein (also has no chance of winning) is completely unqualified for the job of Commander in Chief.  

ANSWER: I must vote for Hillary Clinton. Why? As an aspiring intellectual, I pride myself on overriding my own desired outcomes when they are disputed by overwhelming objective data. It is all but a mathematical certainty that the next President of the United States will either be Clinton or Trump. The potential for catastrophic damage resulting from a Trump presidency is truly an unknown. The course for a Clinton presidency is not particularly desirable to me but it is completely predictable with low risk for unprecedented disaster. Ironically, one of Hillary's top ten campaign promises is to fight for overturning Citizen's United. Her platform also includes raising the minimum wage, not increasing taxes on the middle-class, college tuition breaks for families making less than $125k per year, comprehensive immigration reform, and an increased investment in improving our infrastructure. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How to Develop the Intellect: Why Emotions Matter… A LOT!

 This article is not about smart and stupid. Smart and stupid are terminal states over which one has no control. Conversely, intellectual development, like physical development, can be acquired by nearly anyone willing to put in the necessary work. Intellect is the capacity for reason and for acquiring an objective mental grasp. The key words in this definition are “reason” and “objective.” Reason is the ability to arrive at an understanding through logic. Objective means not being influenced by personal feelings or opinions. So, a developed intellect requires both logic and objectivity.

First, one must be able and willing to apply logic. This means adhering to strict principles of validity. There is a necessary logic to the arrangement of parts in a gasoline engine, an electrical circuit, and even a simple door latch. The validity of the arrangement of the respective parts is shown by the effective functioning of each device. If the parts are arranged illogically, the device won’t function properly. The scientific method is applied logic. The validity of the scientific method is shown by the myriad advancements we enjoy in modern life. Nearly every object in your field of vision as you read this post resulted from the application of the scientific method. The profound impact of science on human life cannot be overstated. Adhering to a belief that is clearly disputed by logic signals an intellectual blind spot.

Second, and equally as important as logic, is objectivity. Why would one stubbornly hold on to a belief that is obviously illogical or disputed by huge amounts of scientific evidence? The answer is simple… emotions. Our emotions evolved for one reason and one reason only, to keep us in the gene pool. Emotions guided primitive humans to behave in ways that kept them alive long enough to bear offspring. In the short run, emotion has far more power over our choices than does intellect. Emotional responses to danger quickly override intellect and prompt us to run or fight. These knee-jerk behaviors served us well for thousands of years. Emotions are about survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, our incredible intellectual capacity was an awesome upgrade, but not much of a survival feature.

Emotional responses are closely linked to another human survival trait, egocentrism. Every animal on earth, including the human animal, strives to preserve the “self.” It is our nature to evaluate situations in terms of the self in opposition to everything that is not the self. So, when illogical information is presented to a human animal in a way that makes the self feel emotionally validated, it is a very natural human reaction to accept that piece of information as true. In psychology, we call this cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is the primary obstacle to intellectual development. The scientific method is a series of procedures that help supersede our cognitive biases. Compare the relative pace of human advances prior to and then after the scientific revolution. This comparison makes it crystal clear that the survival traits that worked so well for so long also kept us from moving forward in our accurate understanding of our world.

A developed intellect requires a willingness to bypass your ego's emotional needs
and accept information that often"feels" uncomfortable. This is a tall order and it requires a lifetime of practice.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Blue Lives Matter / Black Lives Matter

That Blue Lives Matter is not in dispute. Unjust killings of police officers are met with outrage, demands for justice,
systemic support for victims' families, and an effort to decrease these incidents in the future. We honor such victims as heroes. This is as it should be. Unjust killings should never be tolerated in a civilized culture. When I hear of an officer killed in the line of duty, my reaction is sympathy and appreciation for the officer's sacrifice. Criticizing or blaming an innocent officer for her own death would be vulgar and repulsive.

That Black Lives Matter is in dispute. Black people are being shot to death while shopping, or playing in a park, or seeking assistance for a broken down vehicle. Video evidence of innocent, unarmed, black people being shot to death is somehow met by otherwise moral people with complete indifference. Worse yet, these otherwise moral people blame the victims and become enraged when black people complain.

No one believes that all or most police officers are bad apples. On the contrary, most people appreciate law enforcement. However, just as a teacher, truck driver, or bricklayer must be prosecuted for criminal behavior, so must police officers.

Like teachers, police officers receive low pay for an extremely responsible job. Unlike teachers, police officers must be prepared to manage life and death situations on a regular basis. Also unlike teachers, who must complete a Bachelor's degree and an internship to be certified, basic law enforcement training in NC requires only a HS diploma or GED and 620 hours of training. To put that in perspective, cosmetologists must complete 1500 hours of training to be licensed in NC.

Innocent American citizens are being killed by police officers on a regular basis. Instead of black people, imagine if these executions were being perpetrated against people with blue eyes. Because a 12-year-old in a park had blue eyes, police felt threatened and shot him to death. Because a stalled motorist had blue eyes, police shot him to death as he held his hands in the air. Because a father had blue eyes, police shot him to death in Walmart when he picked up a toy gun to buy for his kid's birthday.

For any moral patriot, shock and outrage should be the appropriate responses to
these events. This is not an issue that should be debated. It is an issue requiring immediate action! How could anyone think otherwise!? Accountability and increased training are obvious places to start.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Should Mental Health Be Privatized?

A well regulated free market can be a wonderful thing. At its best, regulated competition leads to fair prices and quality goods and services. However, the free market is necessarily fueled by profit. Failure to produce a profit results in a failed endeavor. The system works well as long as the goods and services in question are not negatively affected by profit as the overarching goal.

Having profit as the key goal automatically relegates more noble aspirations to minor positions. Fairness, compassion, and honesty become subsidiaries to profit in privatized services. We have all experienced firsthand situations where privatized healthcare has failed the litmus’ for fairness, compassion, and honesty.

The state of North Carolina privatized mental health services several years ago. The result? North Carolina jails are filled with indigent folks suffering from mental illness. Mental health services for the poor in North Carolina are nearly inaccessible. State-run community mental health centers have the prime goal of effective mental health services to the community, not profit. State-run facilities are not always successful (especially when underfunded), but effective treatment is at least their main objective.

At a community mental health center, if a patient fails to show for an appointment, a case worker may make a home visit to ensure treatment. In the private sector, when a patient fails to show for an appointment, follow up is much less aggressive (What happens when you miss an appointment with your family doctor?). Community mental health centers assume a good deal of responsibility to ensure their patients receive treatment. Many indigents with mental illness do not place a high priority on their own treatment. Failure to treat these folks is not just harmful to the individual, it is detrimental to society. Financial, social, emotional, and physical harm to other members of the community often results when the poor do not receive the treatment they need.  

Despite stereotypes of lazy, ineffective government workers, many services are more effectively delivered through the public sector. The US Military, Post Office, Medicare, Mental Health, FDA, and Social Security are all examples of services better managed by the public sector.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Is Donald Trump a Sociopath?

Once called sociopathy or psychopathy, the diagnostic manual for mental disorders now calls the condition "antisocial personality disorder." To receive the diagnosis, one must exhibit 3 of the 6 criteria listed below. Is Donald Trump a sociopath?

1. Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest  
  • Donald Trump has paid out millions to settle thousands of legal charges including sexual assault, racial discrimination, mafia ties, fraud, tenant intimidation, employing illegal immigrants, marital rape, antitrust violations, refusal to pay workers and contractors.

2. Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

3. Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
  • 63% of Americans consider Trump to be too impulsive in his decision making. NATO reworked its discussion format to compensate for Trump’s unusually short attention span. 

4. Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
  • According to Barbara Res, who in the early 1980s served as vice president in charge of construction of Trump Tower in Manhattan, the emotional core around which Donald Trump’s personality constellates is anger: “As far as the anger is concerned, that’s real for sure. He’s not faking it,”…  “The fact that he gets mad, that’s his personality.”

5. Reckless disregard for safety of self or others

6. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

7. Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
  • Trump famously fails to admit mistakes. It is impossible to feel remorse if you do not believe you have done anything wrong. Ask the people who filed those 3500 lawsuits about Donald Trump’s remorse.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why Government should NOT be run like a Business

I think this conclusion should be a no-brainer for anyone who takes the time to think about it. What is the primary function of business? On the most basic level, the function of business is to generate profit. Profit is good and necessary for any successful business. But, profit is a motive without conscience. When profit is the guiding force, higher human motives such as patriotism, fairness, social responsibility, loyalty, honesty, generosity, and kindness become subordinate.

What is the primary function of government? The function of government is to serve the citizenry. The US Constitution articulates this purpose very eloquently: "establish Justice (fairness), ensure domestic Tranquility (peace), provide for the common defense (protection), promote the general Welfare (social responsibility), and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity (protect the rights and freedoms of current and future generations American citizens)."

Consider a hypothetical individual, modeled after business, who is motivated by personal profit to the exclusion of all other influences. This individual would be characterized as a sociopath and government would be charged with protecting the populous from him/her.

Now, consider a hypothetical individual, modeled after government, whose dominant motivators in life are to stand up for people who are being treated unfairly, to maintain social harmony, to protect those who are in danger, to share with those who are in need, and to support the freedoms and rights of all people. This person would be characterized as a hero.

Running government like a business is not just a bad idea. It is an immoral one. Government protects society by enforcing laws and regulations that restrict individual citizens and businesses from engaging in behaviors that harm others. This must be accomplished while ensuring that the liberties of each individual are protected and that there is a level playing field for the free market. 

This is not rocket science. When one’s moral compass is not compromised by base motives (greed, bigotry, selfishness, arrogance, clannishness, indifference to the suffering of others, cruelty, etc.), direction becomes clear and obvious. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why You Can't Always Trust Your "Gut Feelings?"

A “gut feeling” is an automatic, cognitive, short-cut that provides a crude, organic, meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept.

Life experiences are three-fold. First, they involve sensations. Real and/or imagined sensory stimulation from the environment such as light, sound, fragrance, texture, etc. Second, experiences require cognitions and perceptions. These are your thoughts about the sensory stimuli. Your eyes and brain may sense a light, and then your mind interprets, “Oh, the car in front of me just put on the brakes.” Third, experiences are bathed in varying levels of emotion. So, the car in front of you suddenly hits the brakes and you feel a quick twinge of fear that you may rear end the other car. Emotions are the body’s security system. They evolved as a mechanism to aid us in survival. Emotions warn us of danger and reward us for behaviors that have historically resulted in increased odds for survival of the species.

In the course of a lifetime, you have countless experiences covering innumerable concepts. Some of these experiences are available to the conscious mind, but most are not. It would be impossible to function if you had to process your lifetime of experiences every time you had to answer a question or make a decision. So, the mind provides a shortcut called the “gut feeling.”

If I ask, “Do you like raisins?” the answer will lie in an overview of every life experience you have ever had with the concept called, “raisin.”

…raisins are dehydrated grapes

…the dancing California Raisins
…raisin bran cereal
…raisins look like flies
…raisins are high in antioxidants
…as a kid, I threw up after eating a box of raisins
…raisins are sweet
…raisins have a funny texture
…I got raisins in my lunchbox when I was in grade school
…raisins smell bad
…and on and on and on and on

But, since filtering through these millions of experiences would be impossible and impractical, your mind makes a snapshot using the most dominant, overshadowing emotion related to the concept called, “raisin.” This provides your gut feeling and your answer… “No, raisins are gross.”

The gut feeling is necessary to navigate the complex terrain of human life. Without it, we would be paralyzed. However, it is also the fundamental cognitive error that interferes with human advancement. Our nature, like all animals, is to accept gut feelings as “truth.” If I approach a squirrel with the intention of giving it a walnut, the squirrel’s gut feeling may be that I am a threat, so the squirrel runs away. The truth is that I intended to help the squirrel by giving it food. Gut feelings are not truth. Truth is based in fact and possesses objective validity.

So, if I am interested in finding "truth," then I must understand that my gut feeling is an extremely fallible resource completely dependent on my very limited and unique fund of life experiences. To find “truth,“ I must test my gut feeling against objective litmus’ like logic, mathematics, physical properties, etc. The gut feeling is a necessary place to start, but it can be a foolish place to end.

The ability to override “gut feelings” is the characteristic that enables the human to operate beyond the confines of biological and environmental programming. Every animal on the planet is a slave to gut feelings. Throughout the majority of human history, we have operated exactly like every other species in this respect. However, the advent of logic, mathematics, and the scientific method has provided a means for humans to break the bonds of our animal nature and rise above superstition and intuition. It is a tragedy that so few take advantage of this magnificent opportunity.

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