Monday, 7 January 2008

BB2: Panel Day One - Part 1 of 2

[This is the Panel discussion on the first day of the The Science Network's Beyond Belie Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

The Panel comprised John Haidt, Michael Shermer, Daniel Dennett and David Sloan Wilson.

Scot Atran raised my point about capital flows only in1996 reaching the level of 1912 and added that only Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire required passports. Michael Shermer replied that this was a first approximation to getting from here to there - this is a long term trend - with a need to look at the fulfilling of the requirements for liberal democracy to be established via market capitalism coupled with new research from experimental economics. Still the issue raised by Atran that I have previously emphasized is important seems to be being avoided by Shermer, he says he focuses on the economics not the political history.

It seems odd to make an argument based on empirical work, some of which rejects classical economic theories such as rational expectations, without, where the opportunity arises seeing how it is or has worked in reality and which economic theory works better.

Rationality versus intuitionism
Haidt was challenged on the his argument over intuitionism versus rationality with the examples of CBT - cognitive behavioral therapy - and abstract reasoning both being different types of reasoning managing our emotions. Haidt replied that CBT takes weeks, emotion works in seconds and abstract reasoning is not immune to emotion, so it is very much that "it is 6 lanes one way...1 path back" We are not great reasoners and it takes motivation and practice to achieve this.

We can be educated to be better reasoners. Not just through being taught critical reasoning directly or indirectly (within other subjects) but as Dennett noted being taught about all religions gives one a more objective view on that field. Children can also be shown the traps of thinking - of manipulation, persuasion, deception and self-deception in interesting ways. Still even if all this is done and the population is better prepared on average there will still be wide variation and it is highly unlikely to be the case, given what we know today - about some good reasoners that go wrong (from Wallace through Josephson to Pons etc.) - that we will still on average be poor reasoners. Will it remain that only a few will want to improve themselves and what are the implications in a liberal democracy where everyone can vote?

The Engine of Hypocrisy
Patricia Churchland asked Wilson to respond to Dennett's issues regarding the "engine of hypocrisy" where practical reality works better than factual reality. Wilson emphasizes that he focuses on descriptions not prescriptions, and if we want to understand the nature of human mentality we have discovered that we derive belief systems high in practical realism where "factual realism is the servant of ... practical realism". He wants, by this approach, to dissociate the issue of these two realisms from religion. He wonders that if we could not live solely with a factual realism then we are all in a dilemma, do we have to accept a small amount of practical realism? Further cultural diversity is like biological diversity in terms of thriving in certain environments, so liberalism will only thrive in certain environments high existential security such as in Western Europe. The ultimate prescription for liberalism is that we need to increase "existential security".

If we grant this then this makes me wonder what are the factors that can reduce our existential security here and what will be the repercussions of this - a retreat from liberalism? Is this what is happening in the U.S.A? Surely that country still has high existential security. How can one specify this empirically, it cannot all be in the eye of the beholder - as surely certain minimal economic and social factors need to be in place but what are they? The core concern of Wilson's that we might not be able to give up all practical realism is not fatal to enlightenment thinking, far from it, it would then adjust to aiming at the minimal amount of practical realism possible, this harks back to Slingerland's supernatural minimalism but Wilson's approach is far superior dissociated from expanding the notion of religion to render it meaningless. Anyway I have faith that we can do without practical realism. :-)

Existential Security
Dennett pursues the question regarding existential security in a different direction, wondering if we are putting the cart before the horse sometimes in thinking that western values are a cure all for these problems. Maybe we need to tolerate and support features we disagree with in other countries to prevent them turning into a failed state, whilst at the same time telling them they are wrong to think this way. Should we prefer to avoid failed states over asserting our values, as this is too high a cost to those countries and possibly to us. Shermer just thinks this is just tribalism of social primates and us versus them thinking.

I think Shermer misses the thrust of Dennett's point, it is not just tribalism but us taking a meta view on how to help the other country not just making us better than them and reluctantly accepting some of their aspects that are antithetical to our values. Yet is this similar to the attitude of, say, a religious country, taking the same view on, say, the West, that what they have is an improvement? That may very well be what they think but as usual evidence needs to be provided and just ignoring evidence as, say, another western value is a mistake. What we need to show empirically is the Enlightenment is not just a good idea for the liberal minded but it is empirically demonstrable as a superior solution. It is this later question that is being debated with respect to Wilson's factual versus practical realism but hopefully there will be better treatment on this from historians later in this conference. I remain unconvinced one way or another.

New Atheists and Science
Wilson pursues his point against the "New Atheists" that is "to get the science right". He offers three different means of describing religion scientifically. The parasite hypothesis based on "memes", the evolutionary by-product hypothesis (with Dawkins' moth to flame metaphor) and Wilson's Multi-Level Selection model. Now each of these descriptions calls for a different prescription so the challenge is to find the correct description. Dennett gets hot under the collar over the this and defends the parasitic hypothesis by arguing that not all symbionts are malignant.

The issue is not how the parasitic meme hypothesis is painted - the popular picture emphasizing religion as a demon virus - but whether there is empirical evidence to back it up. Wilson does have a mathematical model that is accepted by population geneticists, the dispute being whether the force of group level selection can ever overwhelm individual level selection. Even Dennett accepts this. Would Dennett add contra Wilson say that this force is not significant even amongst human social groups? I wonder where is the at least equivalent mathematical model for memes and the parasitic hypothesis? Clearly it can re-use epidemiological and cognitive psychology tools but I have not seen anything to date that specifically adds anything to the insights from these taken as is. Wilson does seem to be correct that most of the people working in the religious studies field have been at least partly ignored by the New Atheists and there is this marked difference in the the descriptive tools that are used to tackle this problem. So is New Atheism bad science? Possibly misleading but bad? Well I do not really consider any of these books, bar Dennett's, as "science". So the question really applies to Dennett - lets let Dennett and Wilson slug it out!

Incompatible Solutions
Margaret Jacobs sees two largely incompatible solutions with Shermer's cosmopolitan wiki informed quasi-EU liberal democracy versus Haidt's groups' drive to inclusiveness resulting in being against liberalism. Haidt brings up individual differences such as "religiosity, authoritarianism, conservatism, liberalism - these traits are highly heritable" and these personality traits are distributed on a bell curve. The liberal thinkers at the conference are all from the extreme tail on the distribution. We need to recognize this and allow diversity to co-exist. Not everyone can live in Shermer's world! Haidt's approach seems to be based on Putnam's work which is under dispute but Haidt thinks does not mean that it should not be accepted.

Well Haidt answered my question regarding the heritability of these traits but I am unconvinced. First because Putnam's works is under dispute, the sign of a healthy scientific debate and, if robust, will survive and flourish. It does seem premature to base a whole position on this until critical analysis is in. Anyway the question revolves around cultural variations versus biological variations captured in the way people play special games such as Dictator and Ultimatum "games". It does seem implausible given the rapid development of our modern society over the last 300 years that liberalism could so rapidly overtake conservatism as it basically has, with some unfortunate reversals of course, and base this on heritability of personality traits. The change is evolutionary too rapid. There could random variation - not under much selection force (at whatever level) and this could allow that under differing cultural circumstances different people would thrive and fail. I would like to see some clear mathematical development that both supports and predicts empirical data to be convinced. The question here seems to be fundamental to the realisation of Enlightenment 2.0 - oin the liberal democracy mode - more so than any of the other topics so far in this conference. Let us hope another speaker deals with this directly in the body of their talk.

End of Part One
Part two of this Panel analysis will continue in the next post (from 20.02 till end)