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The Imperative of Democracy For a Just Society

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How important is democracy for realizing a society that is just?  It seems to me that democracy is an important if not vital component of any just society, because any principles of justice that a society seeks to abide by should be established through means that are also fair and just, and thus those principles (or the laws that instantiate them) should be a legislative product resulting from the deliberation and input of every citizen that is to be bound and protected by such standards.  In this post, I’m going to argue for this position by illustrating how reasonable principles of justice are more likely to be realized (if not only realizable) through a democratic form of government over any other system, and by showing how a democratic system for legislation is the most effective way of protecting and improving principles of justice once they are established in a society.  It’s important to note that I am not arguing that all forms of democracy are necessarily capable of achieving a just society, but rather I’m arguing that some form of democracy is necessary to do so.  One major objection to my overall contention is the argument that democracies can lead to a form of majoritarianism that may oppress minorities and restrict their basic rights, thus precluding even any semblance of justice.  This objection is a very serious one that ought to be considered and so I’ll conclude my argument by responding to it accordingly.

Reasonable principles or descriptions of justice as proposed by many philosophers and other important political figures such as Aristotle, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls and others, generally encompass a number of different concepts such as: liberty, freedom, fairness, equality, desert, mutual respect and consideration, and moral rightness, among others.1, 2, 3, 4  I tend to agree with Rawls’ views in particular, where principles of justice revolve around some set of equal rights that is maximally extensive, including equal access and opportunity of holding various political offices and positions.  What’s most important to note about Rawls’ views is the concept of fairness and how the principles of justice can be derived from the original position, i.e., from behind a veil of ignorance.4  If we apply this reasoning to determine what is in fact fair from the perspective of a collective of citizens that hold different sets of values, it stands to reason that the best one can do is to try to find some kind of an overlapping moral consensus that is informed by the very same set of citizens.  It seems that the only political system fit to accomplish this task is going to be some form of a democracy, because only in democracies can the citizens take direct action to influence legislation that is compatible with that overlapping consensus.5 No other political system allows their citizens to have this kind of power.  Furthermore, since all people can only have an equal say in some kind of democratic society, it’s hard to imagine how any other system used to establish principles of justice could have a higher level of fairness.

Maintaining and protecting the principles of justice that are implemented by a society is arguably just as important as establishing them in the first place.  Moreover, if the current established principles of justice (or laws) in a society are at any point perceived as being unjust in light of new information or a change in the overlapping moral consensus of the people that comprise it, there needs to be some mechanism to modify them accordingly.  I would argue that democracy is the most effective way to achieve both the protection of, and the capability of modifying or improving, any implemented principles of justice or laws that instantiate those principles.

To illustrate this point, we can simply imagine that there are two societies, one democratic and one non-democratic, and for the sake of argument we can assume that they both have established principles of justice.  Now let’s consider that some new law has been proposed in both societies that, if enacted and implemented, would result in some gross form of injustice.  I think it’s evident that the democratic society has the best chance of maintaining (or restoring) their established principles of justice because a majority of citizens have the greatest chance of influencing future legislation and/or any future political representation in order to block or reverse the legislation that would have led to any injustice.  If the fate of this decision was merely left in the hands of some subset of people in power, even if it could result in a just outcome, it is less likely to for the simple fact that the interests of a small group in power are statistically less likely to result in a mutually desirable outcome for everyone when all else is equal.  Similarly, if we were to imagine that the overlapping moral consensus changed in both societies, once again, I would argue that democracy would prevail as the best system for modifying or improving any laws in place so as to better conform to any modified principles of justice.  This would be the case because the most thorough way to determine which laws or principles of justice should replace the old ones, would be to survey all members of that society through a process of moral deliberation6 — a task best fit for a democracy.

One strong objection to my argument (i.e. in short, that democracies are an important if not necessary component for a just society) is the argument that democracies can lead to a majoritarian populace that may choose to strip minorities of their basic human rights and liberties, and thus enact some form of injustice.  One could take this objection even further and argue that a majoritarian populace could (perhaps unknowingly) enact legislation that strips every citizen of some or all of their basic rights and liberties.7 Now this is certainly a reasonable objection and one that is worth careful consideration.  However, this argument can only be successful if it can be shown that there are only non-democratic forms of government that guarantee (or at least do a better job of) establishing, protecting, and/or improving the principles of justice (or the laws that instantiate them) in a society.  I haven’t yet seen anyone satisfy the burden of proof required to support such a claim (even if it is a reasonable objection).  In addition, this objection must hold up to the most robust form of democracy at our disposal to demonstrate a fortiori that all other forms of democracy are likewise insufficient and that they are all demonstrably worse than at least one non-democratic alternative.

Now I will grant that this objection is particularly applicable to a pure democracy, where there are no protections whatsoever against majority rule oppressing minorities’ rights.  However, most forms of democracy that exist today are some kind of democratic republic or constitutional democracy, whereby a constitution is put into place to protect some set of inalienable rights that majority rule can’t overturn.8  While this solution isn’t fool proof, it is nevertheless an effective safeguard to limit majoritarian tyranny while retaining the aforementioned maximally-just benefits of democracy.  Furthermore, one could employ a deliberative democracy, which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted that would instantiate any sought-after principles of justice.  A deliberative democracy accomplishes this justification and helps to resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive moral deliberation, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.6  What better way could there be to achieve a just society than to have equal rights to vote on legislation combined with the societal expectation of justifying any proposed laws through open critical discourse and moral deliberation with one another?  What better way could there be to find the overlapping moral consensus that Rawls pointed to, as idealized in his original position?

As such, I believe the majoritarian objection fails not only because there are democratic systems with safeguards in place to help prevent these kinds of majoritarian problems from occurring (such as a constitution), thus limiting tyranny at least as well as any non-democratic government could, but also because even in the absence of these safeguards (which are of course limited in efficacy), deliberative democratic institutions can further reduce the risk of oppressive tyranny of the majority by their having to justify their positions/votes with the other members of society through moral deliberation.  Combining these two institutions — a constitution and moral deliberation — into one democratic framework, would provide a robust rebuttal to such an objection and also provides a good template of democracy that further supports my overall argument.

In conclusion, I’ve argued that democracy is a vital component for just societies because it offers a means of deriving a society’s principles of justice, through the laws that instantiate them, in the most fair and equitable way known, and because of its strength to adapt to societal changes in order to maintain justice in light of a shift in overlapping consensus or as a possible counter-response to unjust legislation enacted.  In addition, it can in principle provide a way of maximizing justice through institutions that encourage (if not mandate) the use of moral deliberation to justify the votes of any and all citizens.  Among other benefits, this latter principle provides a way of helping to sort out and distinguish between political claims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests.  In doing so, it offers a platform of transparency and dialectic that helps to prevent injustices from coming into fruition.

References

  1. Aristotle, trans. Terence Irwin (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hacket, pp. 67-74, 76; 1129a-1132b, 1134a
  2. Immanuel Kant, trans. John Ladd (1999) Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1999., pp. 29, 38, 30-31, 37
  3. John Stuart Mill, ed. Mary Warnock (1962) Utilitarianism and Other Writings.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company, pp. 296-301, 305, 309, 320-321
  4. Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  5. Christiano, T. (2006, July 27). Democracy. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/
  6. Gutmann & Thompson (2014) Moral Disagreement in a Democracy.  Arguing about Political Philosophy.  Routledge Publishing, NY (pp. 596-601)
  7. Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green
  8. No author (n.d.). CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.civiced.org/resources/publications/resource-materials/390-constitutional-democracy

Demonization Damning Democracy

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After the 2016 presidential election, I’ve had some more time to reflect on the various causes of what has been aptly dubbed Trumpism, and also to reflect on some strategies that we as a nation need to implement in order to successfully move forward.  I’ll start by saying that I suspect that most people will not like this post because most people sit at the extremes of the political spectrum, and thus will likely feel uncomfortable facing any criticism that they think lends legitimacy to their opponents position.  Regardless of this likelihood, I’ve decided to write this post anyway because the criticisms that this post points out reflect exactly this problem — the diminished capacity for the politically divided to be charitable and intellectually honest in terms of their treatment and representation of their opponents’ positions.

Many would be hard pressed to name another period in American history that has been defined by as much political polarization and animosity that we’ve seen in the last year.  The Civil War that transpired in the mid 19th century is perhaps the closest runner up to match this “great divide” plaguing our nation.  In the interest of moving forward, we need to find quicker and more pragmatic ways of bridging such a divide.  We’re not going to agree on most issues, but there are some things we can do a hell of a lot better.  For starters, I think that we all need to stop talking past one another and acknowledge that there were legitimate reasons to vote for Donald Trump (keep in mind that I thought Clinton was the only sane choice which was why I knew I had to vote for her).  The majority of people on both sides of this debate have been demonizing the other rather than being intellectually honest (let alone charitable) about one another’s position.  Unfortunately the damage has already been done and Trump is now going to be our president (barring some miracle occurring between now and January 20th).

I’m in no way attempting to underplay the moral travesty that a large number of voters are responsible for, and which happened despite the fact that they were outnumbered by almost 3 million Democrat voters in the popular vote (which actually set a record for the highest margin direct-democratic victory for any candidate voted against by the electoral college).  I am however trying to open up a civil discourse between progressive liberals such as myself and those that voted for this inexperienced plutocrat for at least some legitimate reasons.  We may still disagree on the importance of those reasons when weighed against all others under consideration, and we may disagree on how effective Trump would be in actually addressing any one of them (even if they were the most important issues), but we should acknowledge those reasons nevertheless.

Economy, Immigration & Terrorism

Before looking at some of these specific reasons, I think it’s important to note the three main issues that they seem to revolve around, namely terrorism, immigration, and the economy.  It’s also interesting to note that all three of these issues are themselves intimately connected with one another with respect to the impetus that turned the election on its head.  For example, many immigrants and refugees from nations that are predominantly Muslim are getting unfairly lumped into a category of would-be terrorists — largely resulting from anti-Muslim sentiments that have escalated since 9/11, and perhaps climaxing with the formation of other Muslim extremist groups such as ISIS.  And on the economic front, Mexican or other Hispanic immigrants in particular are getting flack in part because of their being largely indistinguishable from illegal immigrants, and some people think that their jobs have been or will be taken from illegal immigrants (or taken from legal immigrants that many simply assume are illegal) that are willing to work for below minimum wage.

Of course the irony here is that conservatives that embrace true free market capitalistic principles are shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting this “free market” consequence, i.e., letting the markets decide what wages are fair with no government intervention.  It’s one thing to argue against illegal immigrants breaking immigration laws (which everyone agrees is a problem, even if they disagree on the degree of the problem), but one can’t employ an economic argument against illegal immigrants or legal immigrants based on sub-par wages or a lack of jobs without also acknowledging the need for government-imposed market regulations.  These market regulations include having a minimum wage that is enforced let alone raised to provide a living wage (which is now at risk with Trump’s newly elected Secretary of Labor Andy Puzder, given his history of screwing his fast food workers while raking in millions of dollars per year).

It goes without saying that the anti-immigrant (even anti-legal-immigrant) mentality was only exacerbated when Trump filled his campaign with hateful “build the wall” rhetoric, combined with Trump calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, despite the fact that immigrants comprise a lower percentage of criminals and rapists compared to non-immigrants in the U.S.  None of this helped to foster any support for embracing these generally decent people that are crossing the border looking for a better life in America.  Most of them are looking for better opportunities, for the same reasons our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. long ago (both legally and illegally).  Having said that, it’s also true that illegal immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed, but lying about the actual impact of undocumented immigrants on the economy (by either denying the fact that they can suppress wages in some industries, or by denying that there are benefits that these people can produce in other work sectors), is only going to detract from our ability to solve the problem effectively and ethically.  Hate mongering certainly isn’t going to accomplish anything other than pissing off liberals and hindering bipartisan immigration reform.

As for Islam, people on the right are justifiably pissed off that most people on the left don’t even acknowledge the fact that Islam has dangerous doctrines that have been exploited to radicalize Muslims into Jihadists and Islamists that have fueled various forms of terrorism.  Saying that ISIS isn’t fundamentally Islamic is ridiculous once one sees that its adherents are in fact motivated by a literal reading of the texts (i.e. the Koran and Hadiths) including a true belief in eternal paradise and glory for martyrs that die on the front lines or by flying a plane into a building.

As a progressive liberal, I’m disappointed when regressive liberals call anybody that points this out a racist or an Islamophobe.  It’s true that many people that make these points (generally on the political right) are also racist and Islamophobic, but many of them are not (including some liberals such as myself) and it actually pushed a number of people toward Trump that would have otherwise stayed away from a clown like Trump. If only the left had done a better job being honest about these facts, then they wouldn’t have scared away a number of people that were sitting on the fence of the election.  A number of people that ran away once they believed that Clinton was being either dishonest or delusional on this point, and who subsequently saw Clinton (albeit erroneously) as someone who was not as likely to handle this terrorist threat effectively. It’s clear to me that she was the most likely to handle it effectively despite this concern given the facts that she was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate, including having valuable and relevant experience in helping to take down Osama Bin Laden as Secretary of State.  This misperception, induced by this bit of dishonesty, gave fuel to a ignorant bigot like Trump who was at least right on this one point, even if for all the wrong reasons, and even if he combined this point with bigotry and bogus xenophobic rhetoric based on his ignorance of Islamic culture and Muslims generally.

So while the Trumpers had some legitimate concern here, they and most others on the right failed to acknowledge that Islamic doctrine isn’t the only motivating factor behind ISIS terrorism as there are a number of geopolitical factors at play here and also some number of radicalizing leaders who simply high-jacked Islamic doctrine to fuel terrorism with the primary goal of meeting those geopolitical goals.   Many Trumpers also failed to realize that most Muslims in the world are peaceful people and are not members of ISIS or any other terrorist group or organization.  Many failed to realize that Trump has absolutely no political experience, let alone specific experience pertaining to national or international security, so he is the last person that should claim to know how to handle such a complicated and multi-faceted international conflict.  Furthermore, Trump’s “I’ll bomb the shit out of them” mentality isn’t going to appease the worries of our Muslim allies nor our non-Muslim allies that are seeking diplomatic resolutions at all costs.

I think one of the biggest oversight of Trumpers is their failing to realize that Trump’s threat to place all Muslims residing in the U.S. into a fascist registry and the effects of his anti-Muslim rhetoric are, if anything, accomplishing exactly what ISIS wants.  ISIS wants all Muslims to reject Western values including democracy, equality, and humanism, and what better way to radicalize more Muslims than having a large number of (mostly) white Americans alienating them through harassment and ostracization.  What better way could there be to lose the trust and cooperation of Muslims already residing within our borders — the very Muslims and Muslim communities that we need to work with to combat radicalization and domestic terrorism?  Trump’s hateful behavior and rudderless tactics are likely to create the ultimate Islamic Trojan horse within our own borders.  So while many on the left need to acknowledge that Islam does in fact have an ideological influence on terrorism, and is thus an influence that needs to be addressed honestly, those on the right also need to appreciate the fact that we need to avoid further alienating and angering Muslims such that they are more compelled to join radical groups, the very radical groups that we all (including most other Muslims) despise.

Multi-culturalism & Assimilation

Another big Trump-voter motivational reason is the ongoing clash between multi-culturalism and traditional American culture or perhaps better described as well-established highly homogeneous cultures in America.  Some people were driven to Trumpism by their feeling culturally threatened by immigrants that fail to assimilate to the already well-established cultures in various communities around the country.  If they’ve lived in a community that is composed of only English speaking, reality-TV-watching, hamburger-eating, football fans (to give an example), and then they start seeing other languages and entirely foreign cultures in schools, on the bus, at their workplace, etc., they feel that their way of life is being encroached upon.  When immigrants fail to assimilate to the predominant culture of an area (including learning the English language), with the natives in these communities pressured to adopt bilingual infrastructure, to suspend cultural norms to make new religious exceptions, etc., people understandably get pissed off because humans have evolved to be highly tribal and most of us fear change.

Some feel like there’s a double-standard at play where natives in a community have to adapt to accommodate the immigrants and their cultures, but without having the immigrants compromise by accommodating the native cultures and norms (or at least not to a large enough degree).  As a result, we often see pockets of foreigners that bud off to form micro-communities and groups that are very much like small versions of their home countries.  Then when there’s an influx of these immigrants in schools and certain workplaces, there is increased animosity toward them because they are that much more likely to be treated as an out-group.  This is no doubt further fueled by racism and xenophobia (with vicious cycles of increasing prejudice against immigrants and subsequent assimilation hurdles), but there needs to be a give-take relationship with better cultural assimilation so that the native communities don’t feel that their own culture is threatened while simultaneously feeling forced to preserve and make way for an entirely foreign one.  Additionally, we need to better educate people to be more accepting of reasonable levels of diversity, even if we place pragmatic limits on how far that diversity can go (while still maintaining solidarity and minimizing tribalism).

If it’s not a two-way street, with effective cultural assimilation, then we can expect a lot of people to run away looking for someone like Trump to throw them a proverbial life preserver with his “I’m the greatest and I can fix it all and make America great again” motto (perhaps disguising the implicit motto “make America WHITE again”) even if it’s really nothing but a bunch of snake oil demagoguery so he can get into power and rob the nation blind with a cabinet full of fellow billionaire plutocrats (including those tied to Big-Oil and Goldman Sachs).  Trump learned fairly quickly how effective demagoguery was, likely aided by his insider knowledge of American TV-junkie culture (including The Apprentice), his knowledge of how bigoted so many people are, how attracted they are to controversy and shock-value (rather than basic common decency) and how he could manipulate so many voters through hatred and fear given such weaknesses.  But none of that would have worked if there weren’t some grains of truth in the seeds Trump was sowing, if Trump wasn’t saying things that many Americans were simply too afraid to say out loud (including that which was largely racist, bigoted, and ignorant).

But rather than most people on the left acknowledging the inherent problems with unlimited multi-culturalism, including it leading us down a path where the population becomes less and less cohesive with less solidarity and common goals, the left largely labeled all people with these legitimate concerns as racists and bigots.  While it’s true that a substantial chunk of Trump supporters are racists and bigots (perhaps half, who really knows), an appreciable chunk of them are not racists or bigots.  Much like those that saw obvious problems with Islamic ideology in the modern age as it pertains to terrorist threats (with race being irrelevant, as can be seen by radicals such as Adam Gadahn), many saw problems with immigration in terms of the pragmatic limitations of multi-culturalism (rather than problems with any particular race).  On the other side however, Trump supporters have to at least acknowledge that even if they themselves are not racist, their support of Trump does in fact validate his racist rhetoric and the racist supporters fueled by that rhetoric (even if Trump himself had no racist intentions, although I think he did).  So they may still think it was worth it to support Trump but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.  They have to own up to what Trump’s rhetoric fuels and take at least some responsibility for it, including any consequences that they do not like or endorse.

Political Correctness, Safe Spaces, & Free Speech

Last but not least there are debates regarding things like political correctness (which play into the multi-culturalism battle), safe spaces, and freedom of speech, that deeply affected this election.  For one, I acknowledge and sympathize with others’ aggravation in terms of political correctness, where sometimes people are just trying to communicate some semantic content and don’t want to be bogged down with ever-changing social conventions on what terms one is and is not allowed to use.  But I also understand that social conventions change as a result of what comprises a society’s “stream of consciousness”, including the ever-changing ethical and moral concerns of the day, issues with social justice, stereotypes, marginalization of one group or another, etc.  People on the right should try not to be completely callous and inconsiderate about social conventions and work harder to understand why others are offended by certain terms, and those on the left need to try harder to understand the intentions of those using possibly offensive terms.  If we each work to give a little leeway to the other and try to put ourselves in their shoes and vice versa, we’ll have better chances of getting along and finding common ground rather than being demonized and never getting anywhere in terms of societal progress.  People on the left should work harder to not to be so thin-skinned that everything offends them (in other words, try harder not to be like Trump), and people on the right should try to show a little more empathy and try not to be inconsiderate jerks.

Safe spaces have become another problem.  While it’s true that some events can be and should be exclusive to certain groups (for example keeping Nazi or KKK members out of a Jewish festival or speech), it is crucial that we don’t fall down a slippery slope that abolishes freedom of speech or that establishes constant safe spaces that exacerbate the polarization plaguing our political sphere.  For example, social platforms like Facebook and the like allow people to block the comments of others, feed their wall with news and articles that fulfill their own cognitive confirmation biases and prevent their ideas from being challenged.  The irony is that while many Trumpers raised legitimate concerns and dismay over the concept of safe spaces as espoused by those on the left, they too were guilty of the safe space methodology on their own Facebook pages, etc.  Even my own sister (a Trump supporter after Cruz lost) blocked me after I pointed out a few flaws in her logic and reasoning with regard to a couple Trump apologetic posts she had shared.  After her husband came in to defend her (she never attempts to defend herself for some reason), I refuted his points as well in a civil way and then she blocked me from her wall.  This is a problem because people on both sides are making their own safe spaces not allowing diversity in the opinions and points they are exposed to.  It only increases the in-group/out-group mentality that is ripping this country apart.

Trump is ironically the worst offender using safe spaces that I’ve seen, with his “Sean Hannity” safe space on the radio, his one-dimensional rallies (filled with supporters to boost his ego and who have been encouraged by Trump himself to punch protesters in the face, with him offering to pay their legal fees like some kind of totalitarian mobster), his disdain for the free press, free speech, and journalism in general — not to mention the libel laws he wants to change so that he can sue news organizations that report on facts he doesn’t want made public.  The chronic safe space mentality has got to go, even if we reserve the right to safe spaces for some places and occasions.  There needs to be a careful balance so people are exposed to diverse ideas (not just what they want to hear) and we need to protect free speech (limiting one group opens the doors to limit them all).

Where to go from here?

While there may have been some other legitimate reasons to vote for Trump (I couldn’t think of any others to be honest), these seemed to be the primary ones I noticed at play.  So what do we do now?  Well, people need to stop talking past one another, and better empathize with the opposition and not simply demonize them.  The sooner everyone can acknowledge that the opposition had at least some legitimacy, the sooner we can have more civil discourses and keep moving forward to heal this great divide.

The WikiLeaks Conundrum

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I’ve been thinking a lot about WikiLeaks over the last year, especially given the relevant consequences that have ensued with respect to the 2016 presidential election.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the trade-offs that underlie any type of platform that centers around publishing secret or classified information, news leaks, and the like.  I’m torn over the general concept in terms of whether these kinds of platforms provide a net good for society and so I decided to write a blog post about it to outline my concerns through a brief analysis.

Make no mistake that I appreciate the fact that there are people in the world that work hard and are often taking huge risks to their own safety in order to deliver any number of secrets to the general public, whether governmental, political, or corporate.  And this is by no means exclusive to Wikileaks, but also applies to similar organizations and even individual whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden.  In many cases, the information that is leaked to the public is vitally important to inform us about some magnate’s personal corruption, various forms of systemic corruption, or even outright violations of our constitutional rights (such as the NSA violating our right to privacy as outlined in the fourth amendment).

While the public tends to highly value the increased transparency that these kinds of leaks offer, they also open us up to a number of vulnerabilities.  One prominent example that illustrates some of these vulnerabilities is the influence on the 2016 presidential election, resulting from the Clinton email leaks and the leaks pertaining to the DNC.  One might ask how exactly could those leaks have been a bad thing for the public?  After all it just increased transparency and gave the public information that most of us felt we had a right to know.  Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated than that.  Beyond the fact that it can be difficult to know where to draw the line in terms of what should or should not be public knowledge.

To illustrate this point, imagine that you are a foreign or domestic entity that is highly capable of hacking.  Now imagine that you stand to gain an immense amount of land, money, or power if a particular political candidate in a foreign or domestic election is elected, because you know about their current reach of power and their behavioral tendencies, their public or private ties to other magnates, and you know the kinds of policies that they are likely to enact based on their public pronouncements in the media and their advertised campaign platform.  Now if you have the ability to hack into private information from every pertinent candidate and/or political party involved in that election, then you likely have the ability to not only know secrets about the candidate that can benefit you from their winning (including their perspective of you as a foreign or domestic entity, and/or damning things about them that you can use as leverage to bribe them later on after being elected), but you also likely know about damning things that could cripple the opposing candidate’s chances at being elected.

This point illustrates the following conundrum:  while WikiLeaks can deliver important information to the public, it can also be used as a platform for malicious entities to influence our elections, to jeopardize our national or international security, or to cause any number of problems based on “selective” sharing.  That is to say, they may have plenty of information that would be damning to both opposing political parties, but they may only choose to deliver half the story because of an underlying agenda to influence the election outcome.  This creates an obvious problem, not least because the public doesn’t consider the amount of hacked or leaked information that they didn’t get.  Instead they think they’ve just become better informed concerning a political candidate or some policy issue, when in fact their judgment has now been compromised because they’ve just received a hyper-biased leak and one that was given to them intentionally to mislead them, even though the contents of the leak may in fact be true.  But when people aren’t able to put the new information in the proper context or perspective, then new information can actually make them less informed.  That is to say, the new information can become an epistemological liability, because it unknowingly distorts the facts, leading people to behave in ways that they otherwise would not have if they only had a few more pertinent details.

So now we have to ask ourselves, what can we do about this?  Should we just scrap WikiLeaks?  I don’t think that’s necessary, nor do I think it’s feasible to do even if we wanted to since it would likely just be replaced by any number of other entities that would accomplish the same ends (or it would become delocalized and go back to a bunch of disconnected sources).  Should we assume all leaked information has been leaked to serve some malicious agenda?

Well, a good dose of healthy skepticism could be a part of the solution.  We don’t want to be irrationally skeptical of any and all leaks, but it would make sense to have more scrutiny when it’s apparent that the leak could serve a malicious purpose.  This means that we need to be deeply concerned about this unless or until we reach a point in time where hacking is so common that the number of leaks reaches a threshold where it’s no longer pragmatically possible to selectively share them to accomplish these kinds of half-truth driven political agendas.  Until that point is reached, if it’s ever reached, given the arms race between encryption and hacking, we will have to question every seemingly important leak and work hard to make the public at large understand these concerns and to take them seriously.  It’s too easy for the majority to be distracted by the proverbial carrot dangling in front of them, such that they fail to realize that it may be some form of politically motivated bait.  In the mean time, we need to open up the conversation surrounding this issue, and look into possible solutions to help mitigate our concerns.  Perhaps we’ll start seeing organizations that can better vet the sources of these leaks, or that can better analyze their immediate effects on the global economy, elections, etc., before deciding whether or not they should release the information to the public.  This won’t be an easy task.

This brings me to my last point which is to say that I don’t think people have a fundamental right to know every piece of information that’s out there.  If someone found a way to make a nuclear bomb using household ingredients, should that be public information?  Don’t people understand that many pieces of information are kept private or classified because that’s the only way some organizations can function?  Including organizations that strive to maintain or increase national and international security?  Do people want all information to be public even if it comes at the expense of creating humanitarian crises, or the further consolidation of power by select plutocrats?  There’s often debate over the trade-offs between giving up our personal privacy to increase our safety.  Now the time has come to ask whether our giving up some forms of privacy or secrecy on larger scales (whether we like it or not) is actually detracting from our safety or putting our democracy in jeopardy.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part II

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In the first part of this post, I briefly went over some of the larger problems that our global society is currently facing, including the problem of overpopulation and the overall lack of environmental and economic sustainability.  I also mentioned some of the systematic and ideological (including religious and political) barriers that will need to be overcome before we can make any considerable progress in obtaining a sustainable future.

Although it may seem hopeless at times, I believe that we human beings – despite our cognitive biases and vulnerability to irrational and dogmatic behaviors – have an innate moral core in common that is driven by the incentive to increase our level of overall satisfaction and fulfillment in life. When people feel like they are living more fulfilling lives, they want to continue if not amplify the behavior that’s leading to that satisfaction. If a person is shown ways that lead to greater satisfaction and they are able to experience even a slight though noticeable improvement as a result of those prescriptions, I believe that even irrational and dogmatic people do begin to explore outside of their ideological box.

More importantly however, if everyone is shown that their level of satisfaction and fulfillment in life is ultimately a result of their doing what they feel they ought to do above all else (which is morality in a nutshell), then they can begin to recognize the importance and efficacy of basing those oughts on well-informed facts about the world. In other words, people can begin to universally derive every moral ought from a well-informed is, thus formulating their morality based on facts and empirical data and grounded on reason – as opposed to basing their morality on dogmatic and other unreliable beliefs in the supernatural. It’s easy for people to disagree on morals that are based on dogma and the supernatural, because those supernatural beliefs and sources of dogma vary so much from one culture and religion to another, but morals become common if not universal (in at least some cases) when they are based on facts about the world (including objective physical and psychological consequences not only for the person performing the moral action, but also for anyone on the receiving end of that moral action).

Moral Imperatives & Happiness

Science has slowly but surely been uncovering (or at least better approximating) what kinds of behaviors lead to the greatest levels of happiness and overall satisfaction in the collective lives of everyone in society. Since all morals arguably reduce to a special type of hypothetical imperative (i.e. if your fundamental goal is X, then you ought to do Y above all else), and since all goals ultimately reduce to the fundamental goal of increasing one’s life satisfaction and fulfillment, then there exist objective moral facts, whereby if they were known, they would inform a person of which behaviors they ought to do above all else in order to increase their happiness and fulfillment in life. Science may never be able to determine exactly what these objective moral facts are, but it is certainly logical to assume that they exist, namely some ideal set of behaviors for people (at least, those that are sane and non-psychopathic) which, if we only knew what those ideal behaviors were, they would necessarily lead to maximized satisfaction within every person’s life (a concept that has been proposed by many philosophers, and one which has been very well defended in Richard Carrier’s Goal Theory of Ethics).

What science can do however, and arguably what it has already been doing, is to continue to better approximate what these objective moral facts are as we accumulate more knowledge and evidence in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and even other fields such as economics. What science appears to have found thus far is (among other things) a confirmation of what Aristotle had asserted over two thousand years ago, namely the importance of cultivating what have often been called moral virtues (such as compassion, honesty, and reasonableness), in order to achieve what the Greeks called eudaimonia, or an ultimate happiness with one’s life. This makes perfect sense because cultivating these virtues leads to a person feeling good while exercising behaviors that are also beneficial to everyone else, so then benefiting others is rarely if ever going to feel like a chore (which is an unfortunate side-effect of exclusively employing the moral duty mentality under Kant’s famous deontological ethical framework). Combine this virtue cultivation with the plethora of knowledge about the consequences of our actions that the sciences have been accumulating, thus integrating in John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian or teleological/consequentialist ethical framework, and then we have a good ethical framework that should work very effectively in leading us toward a future where more and more people are happy, fulfilled, and doing what is best for sustaining that happiness in one another, including sustaining the environment that their happiness is dependent on.

A Science of Morality

To give a fairly basic but good example of where science is leading us in terms of morality, consider the fact that science has shown that when people try to achieve ever-increasing levels of wealth at the expense of others, they are doing so because those people believe that wealth will bring them the most satisfaction in life, and thus they believe that maximizing that wealth will bring maximal happiness. However, this belief is incorrect for a number of reasons. For one, studies in psychology have shown that there is a diminishing return of happiness when one increases their income and wealth – which sharply diminishes once a person exceeds an income of about $70K per year (in U.S. dollars / purchasing power). So the idea that increasing one’s income or wealth will indefinitely increase their happiness isn’t supported by the evidence. At best, it has a limited effect on happiness that only works up to a point.

Beyond this, psychology has also shown that there are much more effective ways of increasing happiness, such as cultivating the aforementioned virtues (e.g. compassion, integrity, honesty, reasonableness, etc.) and exercising them while helping others, which leads to internal psychological benefits (which neuroscience can and has quantified to some degree) and also external sociological benefits such as the formation of meaningful relationships which in turn provide even more happiness over time. If we also take into account the amount of time and effort often required to earn more income and wealth (with the intention of producing happiness), it can be shown that the time and effort would have been better spent on trying to form meaningful relationships and cultivating various virtues. Furthermore, if those people gaining wealth could see first hand the negative side-effects that their accumulation of wealth has on many others (such as increased poverty), then doing so would no longer make them as happy. So indeed it can be shown that their belief of what they think maximizes their satisfaction is false, and it can also be shown that there are in fact better ways to increase their happiness and life satisfaction more than they ever thought possible. Perhaps most importantly, it can be shown that the ways to make them happiest also serve to make everyone else happier too.

A Clear Path to Maximizing (Sustainable) Happiness

Perhaps if we begin to invest more in the development and propagation of a science of morality, we’ll start to see many societal problems dissolve away simply because more and more people will begin to realize that the reason why we all think that certain actions are moral actions (i.e. that we ought to do them above all else), is because we feel that doing those actions brings us the most happy and fulfilling lives. If people are then shown much more effective ways that they can increase their happiness and fulfillment, including by maximizing their ability to help others achieve the same ends, then they’re extremely likely to follow those prescribed ways of living, for it could be shown that not doing so would prevent them from gaining the very maximal happiness and fulfillment that they are ultimately striving for. The only reason people wouldn’t heed such advice then is because they are being irrational, which means we need to simultaneously work on educating everyone about our cognitive biases, how to spot logical fallacies and avoid making them, etc.  So then solving society’s problems, such as overpopulation, socioeconomic inequality, or unsustainability, boils down to every individual as well as the collective whole accumulating as many facts as possible about what can maximize our life satisfaction (both now and in the future), and then heeding those facts to determine what we ought to do above all else to achieve those ends.  This is ultimately an empirical question, and a science of morality can help us discover what these facts are.

Sustainability, Happiness, and a Science of Morality: Part I

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Human beings seem to share the fundamental goal of wanting to live a satisfying and fulfilling life. We all want to be happy, and the humanist movement is an excellent demonstration of the kinds of strategies that have been most effective at achieving this admirable goal – such as the push for democracy, equality, basic human rights, and the elimination of poverty. Clearly we have a long way to go before human happiness is anywhere near universal, let alone maximized – if these are in fact possible futures within our grasp. We’re certainly not going to get there very easily (if at all) unless we address a number of serious societal problems.

One of the most pressing issues facing us today, because of it’s negative impact on just about every other societal problem, is the problem of overpopulation. The reasons for this are obvious and include the decreasing number of available resources per capita, thus forcing people to stretch their resources thinner and thinner over an ever growing population, and/or inclining some societies to go to war with others in order to obtain more resources. Then there’s also the problematic increase in environmental degradation and waste production as the population grows. Beyond the typical resources we’re depleting such as energy/power, food, clean air and water, and raw materials for making various products, there’s also other limited resources that are often overlooked such as the amount of available (let alone habitable) space where people can live, grow food, store waste, etc. There’s also a relatively small percentage of people employed in professions that not only require very special training but that also form the backbone of our society (such as teachers, doctors, scientists, etc.). As these latter resources get stretched thinner and thinner (i.e. education, healthcare, and scientific expertise and research), we’re effectively diluting the backbone of our society which can eventually cascade into societal collapse.

To be sure, there are several ways to combat many of these problems that are caused or exacerbated by overpopulation, for example, by shifting from a goods-based economy to a service-flow economy that recycles product materials that would otherwise be wasted (in part by leasing many of the products that are currently bought and later thrown into a landfill), by increasing the percentage of less-pollutive or non-pollutive renewable energy sources, and finding other ways of decreasing the demand for and increasing the efficiency and distribution of all the resources we rely on. The problem with these approaches however is that although these technologies and admirable efforts are slowly improving, the population is also increasing at the same time. So even if we are in fact increasing efficiency and decreasing consumption and waste per capita, we are simultaneously increasing that very capita, and so it is difficult to tell if technological progress has been (or will eventually be) fast enough to produce a true increase in overall sustainability per capita. It would be fallacious and unjustified to simply assume that to be the case – that technology will always be able to fix every problem. If anything, to error on the side of caution, we should assume that this isn’t the case until we have enough data and knowledge to prove otherwise.

Population Reduction is the Name of the Game

An obvious solution to this problem is to decrease the population growth rate such that our technological capabilities are more than sufficient enough to deliver a sustainable future for us. This goal may even require a negative growth rate, and at some point we’re going to have to start talking about what kinds of societal changes are necessary in order to achieve that goal. We may need some new incentives and/or some other kind of population control measures and policies, however, I’m hopeful that solving this problem is pragmatically achievable if we can manage to seriously educate the populace about how their reproductive choices affect the lives of everyone else in the world and how it is likely to impact future generations (though I don’t think this will be an easy task by any means). If people knew that certain reproductive choices would likely lead to either themselves, their children, or their children’s children, living in a future society filled with unprecedented amounts of poverty and war, environmental and economic collapse, and numerous other sources of suffering – any rational person would heed that knowledge and try their best to combat that possible future.

So a large part of the solution is simply educating everybody about the facts and probabilities of these undesirable outcomes. There are already many individuals and groups of people working on these types of endeavors, trying to push for renewable energy, pro-environmental advocacy and other sustainable living practices and policies, spreading education about family planning and trying to increase the access to and adoption of birth control methods, etc. Unfortunately, these practices haven’t yet been adopted by anywhere near a national nor global majority – far from it. However, if the movement becomes more globalized and builds up to a critical mass and momentum, eventually we’re likely to see the average person’s physical and psychological well being improve, which will further reinforce the incentives to improve and perpetuate the movement, because people will start to realize the tangible benefits they are gaining as a result.

Systematic & Ideological Barriers to Sustainability & Happiness

Unfortunately there are some serious systematic and ideological barriers that are preventing the sustainability movement from gaining traction and they’re ultimately inhibiting what would otherwise be fairly reasonable rates of progress. I think that the primary systematic barrier against achieving sustainability has been corporate-capitalism and the free-market economic models currently in place. While it may be true that there are certain forms of capitalism along with certain regulated market models that could work in principle if not also in practice, unfortunately these aren’t the brands of capitalism and market models that are currently employed by most industrialized nations (though some nations have more sustainable models than others).

What we currently have now are globalized economic systems and models that are fundamentally based on maximizing profit and consolidating privately owned production means at the expense of not only exploiting and depleting our natural resources and environment but also by exploiting unethical sources of human labor. Furthermore, these models have in turn led to unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Then again, what else should we expect to happen when we employ corporate-capitalist free-market models which inherently lack adequate and universal economic, labor and environmental regulations? Despite the fact that the wealthy corporate elite, and the many politicians and citizens that have bought into their propaganda, have actually been touting this model as “the best in the world” or “the best model possible”, we can see that this isn’t true at all both by the fallacious fundamental principles that the models are based on and the actual results they’ve been delivering thus far. If we’re going to have a sustainable future, let alone one that provides us more satisfaction and happiness throughout our lives, we’re going to have to jump off of this sinking ship, and adopt an entirely new societal model.

We also need to consider the ideological barriers that have been hindering the sustainability movement as well as the humanism movement in general. For example, there are many prominent religions such as Christianity and Islam (which are highly influential as they make up over half the population of the world) that believe that one of the primary goals for human beings (according to their “divinely inspired” scripture) is to “be fruitful and multiply” while also claiming a general dominion over all the plants and animals of the earth. While the latter “dominion” over the earth has been interpreted by some as “responsible stewardship” (which is compatible with sustainability), it has often been interpreted as “ownership” over the environment and as justification to exploit it strictly for the benefit of human beings (not realizing our intimate dependence on all other ecosystems). Worse yet, the former “be fruitful and multiply” adage can only be reasonably interpreted one way, and unfortunately this “advice” is the antithesis of a sustainable model for society (though it has been an incredibly effective meme for the expansion of these religions and their cultural influence and power). Indeed, it is the exact opposite of what we should be doing at this point in human history, and perhaps the greatest irony here is that the current overpopulation problem was largely a result of this adage, and the subsequent viral spread of these Abrahamic religions over the past fifteen hundred years especially.

Two other religious beliefs worth mentioning here, which have also been highly popularized by the Abrahamic religions (notably Christianity), are the beliefs that “the end is near” and that “no matter what happens, everything is in God’s hands”, as these beliefs and the overall mentality they reinforce do nothing to support the long-term responsible planning that is fundamental to a sustainable societal model. The latter belief plays on an unfortunate human cognitive bias known as risk compensation, where we tend to behave less responsibly when we feel that we are adequately protected from any harm. In the case of a fanatical belief in divine protection, their level of risk compensation is biased to the theoretical maximum, thus making them the most likely to behave the most irresponsibly. The former belief (“the end is near”) unavoidably shifts the believer’s priorities to the short term (and in proportion to the strength of the belief), and with the specific intention of preparing for this “end that is to come”, rather than basing their beliefs on reality and evidence and responsibly preparing for a brighter future for all of humanity and the rest of the planet that we depend on.

Certainly, these religious beliefs aren’t the only ideological barriers to sustainability, as there are a number of other irrational political ideologies that are largely though not exclusively based on the rejection of scientific evidence and consensus, and have served to heavily reinforce the fossil-fuel and other natural resource driven corporate-capitalist model. This unsustainable model has been reinforced by denying facts about climate change and many other facts pertaining to human impacts on the environment in general. In some cases, I find it difficult to tell if the people that make these absurd claims actually believe them to be true (e.g. that 99+% of scientists are somehow conspiring or lying to everybody else in the world), or if they are just implicitly pleading ignorance and rationalizing so that they can maintain their profit-driven models for outright insatiable greed. I find it most plausible that politicians are collaborating with certain corporations to deny scientific facts because they want to continue to make billions off of this resource exploitation (at least for as long as they can get away with it), and are doing so in large part by brainwashing the constituent base that elected them into office with mounds of corporate-funded misinformation, fear mongering, and empty political rhetoric.

It should also come as no surprise that the people that believe and/or perpetuate these political ideological barriers to sustainability are most often the very same people that believe and/or perpetuate the aforementioned religious ideological barriers, and it seems quite evident that politicians have taken advantage of this fact. Many of them surely know quite well that if they can persuade religious voters to vote for them by convincing those voters that they share a common ground on some moral issue, then those voters become distracted from critically thinking about the primary political agendas that those politicians are really pushing for behind the curtain. The very agendas that are in fact hindering a sustainable future from ever coming into fruition.

We’ve all seen it – certain politicians claiming that they oppose stem cell research or abortion, or that advocate for abolishing the separation between church and state (though generally not admittedly), and use this tactic to suck in these (often) single issue religious voters, while ironically promoting a number of policies that often violate the morals of those very same voters (unbeknownst to the voters). They enact policies that perpetuate war, capital punishment, poverty, and the military-industrial complex. They enact policies that worsen socioeconomic inequality and the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. They enact policies that are destroying the finite supply of natural capital we have left on this planet. They enact policies that ultimately hinder democracy, equality, and universal human rights.

So in the end, most religious voters (and some non-religious voters that are similarly misled), while admirably trying to do what they believe is the most moral thing to do, end up vastly increasing the amount of immoral behavior and suffering in the world, due in large part to the politicians that manipulated them into doing so. Which is why it is crucial that people make their decisions based on reason and evidence and also critically think about the consequences of their decisions and actions as they are sometimes more complicated than we are often led to believe. We need to think more critically of all the policies and legislation that we are choosing based on who we vote for, and we also need to be wary of policies that may initially seem to align with our morals and desires, and yet will actually result in more suffering or other unforeseen problems in the long run.

In the next part of this post, I will elaborate more on the broader human goals we all seem to share, and how a science of morality can help us use those broader goals to alleviate these societal problems and simultaneously help us to achieve a future where we are all collectively happier than we ever thought we could be, with far more fulfilling lives.  Here’s the link to part two.

Neuroscience Arms Race & Our Changing World View

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At least since the time of Hippocrates, people began to realize that the brain was the physical correlate of consciousness and thought.  Since then, the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and several inter-related fields have emerged.  There have been numerous advancements made within the field of neuroscience during the last decade or so, and in that same time frame there has also been an increased interest in the social, religious, philosophical, and moral implications that have precipitated from such a far-reaching field.  Certainly the medical knowledge we’ve obtained from the neurosciences has been the primary benefit of such research efforts, as we’ve learned quite a bit more about how the brain works, how it is structured, and the ongoing neuropathology that has led to improvements in diagnosing and treating various mental illnesses.  However, it is the other side of neuroscience that I’d like to focus on in this post — the paradigm shift relating to how we are starting to see the world around us (including ourselves), and how this is affecting our goals as well as how to achieve them.

Paradigm Shift of Our World View

Aside from the medical knowledge we are obtaining from the neurosciences, we are also gaining new perspectives on what exactly the “mind” is.  We’ve come a long way in demonstrating that “mental” or “mind” states are correlated with physical brain states, and there is an ever growing plethora of evidence which suggests that these mind states are in fact caused by these brain states.  It should come as no surprise then that all of our thoughts and behaviors are also caused by these physical brain states.  It is because of this scientific realization that society is currently undergoing an important paradigm shift in terms of our world view.

If all of our thoughts and behaviors are mediated by our physical brain states, then many everyday concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making can take on entirely new meanings.  To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly mention the well known “nature vs. nurture” debate.  The current consensus among scientists is that people (i.e. their thoughts and behavior) are ultimately products of both their genes and their environment.

Genes & Environment

From a neuroscientific perspective, the genetic component is accounted for by noting that genes have been shown to play a very large role in directing the initial brain wiring schema of an individual during embryological development and through gestation.  During this time, the brain is developing very basic instinctual behavioral “programs” which are physically constituted by vastly complex neural networks, and the body’s developing sensory organs and systems are also connected to particular groups of these neural networks.  These complex neural networks, which have presumably been naturally selected for in order to benefit the survival of the individual, continue being constructed after gestation and throughout the entire ontogenic evolution of the individual (albeit to lesser degrees over time).

As for the environmental component, this can be further split into two parts: the internal and the external environment.  The internal environment within the brain itself, including various chemical concentration gradients partly mediated by random Brownian motion, provides some gene expression constraints as well as some additional guidance to work with the genetic instructions to help guide neuronal growth, migration, and connectivity.  The external environment, consisting of various sensory stimuli, seems to modify this neural construction by providing a form of inputs which may cause the constituent neurons within these neural networks to change their signal strength, change their action potential threshold, and/or modify their connections with particular neurons (among other possible changes).

Causal Constraints

This combination of genetic instructions and environmental interaction and input produces a conscious, thinking, and behaving being through a large number of ongoing and highly complex hardware changes.  It isn’t difficult to imagine why these insights from neuroscience might modify our conventional views of concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  Prior to these developments over the last few decades, the brain was largely seen as a sort of “black box”, with its internal milieu and functional properties remaining mysterious and inaccessible.  From that time and prior to it, for millennia, many people have assumed that our thoughts and behaviors were self-caused or causa sui.  That is, people believed that they themselves (i.e. some causally free “consciousness”, or “soul”, etc.) caused their own thoughts and behavior as opposed to those thoughts and behaviors being ultimately caused by physical processes (e.g. neuronal activity, chemical reactions, etc.).

Neuroscience (as well as biochemistry and its underlying physics) has shed a lot of light on this long-held assumption and, as it stands, the evidence has shown this prior assumption to be false.  The brain is ultimately controlled by the laws of physics since every chemical reaction and neural event that physically produces our thoughts, choices, and behaviors, have never been shown to be causally free from these physically guiding constraints.  I will mention that quantum uncertainty or quantum “randomness” (if ontologically random) does provide some possible freedom from physical determinism.  However, these findings from quantum physics do not provide any support for self-caused thoughts or behaviors.  Rather, it merely shows that those physically constrained thoughts and behaviors may never be completely predictable by physical laws no matter how much data is obtained.  In other words, our thoughts and behaviors are produced by highly predictable (although not necessarily completely predictable) physical laws and constraints as well as some possible random causal factors.

As a result of these physical causal constraints, the conventional perspective of an individual having classical free will has been shattered.  Our traditional views of human attributes including morality, choices, ideology, and even individualism are continuing to change markedly.  Not surprisingly, there are many people uncomfortable with these scientific discoveries including members of various religious and ideological groups that are largely based upon and thus depend on the very presupposition of precepts such as classical free will and moral responsibility.  The evidence that is compiling from the neurosciences is in fact showing that while people are causally responsible for their thoughts, choices, and behavior (i.e. an individual’s thoughts and subsequent behavior are constituents of a causal chain of events), they are not morally responsible in the sense that they can choose to think or behave any differently than they do, for their thoughts and behavior are ultimately governed by physically constrained neural processes.

New World View

Now I’d like to return to what I mentioned earlier and consider how these insights from neuroscience may be drastically modifying how we look at concepts such as thinking, learning, personality, and decision making.  If our brain is operating via these neural network dynamics, then conscious thought appears to be produced by a particular subset of these neural network configurations and processes.  So as we continue to learn how to more directly control or alter these neural network arrangements and processes (above and beyond simply applying electrical potentials to certain neural regions in order to bring memories or other forms of imagery into consciousness, as we’ve done in the past), we should be able to control thought generation from a more “bottom-up” approach.  Neuroscience is definitely heading in this direction, although there is a lot of work to be done before we have any considerable knowledge of and control over such processes.

Likewise, learning seems to consist of a certain type of neural network modification (involving memory), leading to changes in causal pattern recognition (among other things) which results in our ability to more easily achieve our goals over time.  We’ve typically thought of learning as the successful input, retention, and recall of new information, and we have been achieving this “learning” process through the input of environmental stimuli via our sensory organs and systems.  In the future, it may be possible to once again, as with the aforementioned bottom-up thought generation, physically modify our neural networks to directly implant memories and causal pattern recognition information in order to “learn” without any actual sensory input, and/or we may be able to eventually “upload” information in a way that bypasses the typical sensory pathways thus potentially allowing us to catalyze the learning process in unprecedented ways.

If we are one day able to more directly control the neural configurations and processes that lead to specific thoughts as well as learned information, then there is no reason that we won’t be able to modify our personalities, our decision-making abilities and “algorithms”, etc.  In a nutshell, we may be able to modify any aspect of “who” we are in extraordinary ways (whether this is a “good” or “bad” thing is another issue entirely).  As we come to learn more about the genetic components of these neural processes, we may also be able to use various genetic engineering techniques to assist with the necessary neural modifications required to achieve these goals.  The bottom line here is that people are products of their genes and environment, and by manipulating both of those causal constraints in more direct ways (e.g. through the use of neuroscientific techniques), we may be able to achieve previously unattainable abilities and perhaps in a relatively miniscule amount of time.  It goes without saying that these methods will also significantly affect our evolutionary course as a species, allowing us to enter new landscapes through our substantially enhanced ability to adapt.  This may be realized through these methods by finding ways to improve our intelligence, memory, or other cognitive faculties, effectively giving us the ability to engineer or re-engineer our brains as desired.

Neuroscience Arms Race

We can see that increasing our knowledge and capabilities within the neurosciences has the potential for drastic societal changes, some of which are already starting to be realized.  The impact that these fields will have on how we approach the problem of criminal, violent, or otherwise undesirable behavior can not be overstated.  Trying to correct these issues by focusing our efforts on the neural or cognitive substrate that underlie them, as opposed to using less direct and more external means (e.g. social engineering methods) that we’ve been using thus far, may lead to much less expensive solutions as well as solutions that may be realized much, much more quickly.

As with any scientific discovery or subsequent technology produced from it, neuroscience has the power to bestow on us both benefits as well as disadvantages.  I’m reminded of the ground-breaking efforts made within nuclear physics several decades ago, whereby physicists not only gained precious information about subatomic particles (and their binding energies) but also how to release these enormous amounts of energy from nuclear fusion and fission reactions.  It wasn’t long after these breakthrough discoveries were made before they were used by others to create the first atomic bombs.  Likewise, while our increasing knowledge within neuroscience has the power to help society improve by optimizing our brain function and behavior, it can also be used by various entities to manipulate the populace for unethical reasons.

For example, despite the large number of free market proponents who claim that the economy need not be regulated by anything other than rational consumers and their choices of goods and services, corporations have clearly increased their use of marketing strategies that take advantage of many humans’ irrational tendencies (whether it is “buy one get one free” offers, “sales” on items that have artificially raised prices, etc.).  Politicians and other leaders have been using similar tactics by taking advantage of voters’ emotional vulnerabilities on certain controversial issues that serve as nothing more than an ideological distraction in order to reduce or eliminate any awareness or rational analysis of the more pressing issues.

There are already research and development efforts being made by these various entities in order to take advantage of these findings within neuroscience such that they can have greater influence over people’s decisions (whether it relates to consumers’ purchases, votes, etc.).  To give an example of some of these R&D efforts, it is believed that MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans may eventually be able to show useful details about a person’s personality or their innate or conditioned tendencies (including compulsive or addictive tendencies, preferences for certain foods or behaviors, etc.).  This kind of capability (if realized) would allow marketers to maximize how many dollars they can squeeze out of each consumer by optimizing their choices of goods and services and how they are advertised. We have already seen how purchases made on the internet, if tracked, begin to personalize the advertisements that we see during our online experience (e.g. if you buy fishing gear online, you may subsequently notice more advertisements and pop-ups for fishing related goods and services).  If possible, the information found using these types of “brain probing” methods could be applied to other areas, including that of political decision making.

While these methods derived from the neurosciences may be beneficial in some cases, for instance, by allowing the consumer more automated access to products that they may need or want (which will likely be a selling point used by these corporations for obtaining consumer approval of such methods), it will also exacerbate unsustainable consumption and other personal or societally destructive tendencies and it is likely to continue to reduce (or eliminate) whatever rational decision making capabilities we still have left.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, neuroscience has the potential to (and is already starting to) completely change the way we look at the world.  Further advancements in these fields will likely redefine many of our goals as well as how to achieve them.  It may also allow us to solve many problems that we face as a species, far beyond simply curing mental illnesses or ailments.  The main question that comes to mind is:  Who will win the neuroscience arms race?  Will it be those humanitarians, scientists, and medical professionals that are striving to accumulate knowledge in order to help solve the problems of individuals and societies as well as to increase their quality of life?  Or will it be the entities that are trying to accumulate similar knowledge in order to take advantage of human weaknesses for the purposes of gaining wealth and power, thus exacerbating the problems we currently face?

Religion: Psychology, Evolution, and Socio-political Aspects

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Religion is such a strong driving force in most (if not all) cultures as it significantly affects how people behave and how they look at the world around them.  It’s interesting to see that so many religions share certain common elements, and it seems likely that these common elements arose from several factors including some psychological similarities between human beings.  Much like Carl Jung’s idea of a “collective unconscious”, humans likely share certain psychological tendencies and this would help to explain the religious commonalities that have precipitated over time.  It seems plausible that some evolutionary mechanisms, including natural selection and also the “evolution” of certain social/political structures, also played a role in establishing some of these religious commonalities.  I’d like to discuss some of my thoughts on certain religious beliefs including what I believe to be some important psychological, social, political, and evolutionary factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of religion as well as some common religious beliefs.

Fear of Death

The fear of death is probably one of the largest forces driving many religious beliefs.  This fear of death seems to exist for several reasons.  For one, the fear of death may be (at least partly) an evolutionary by-product of our biological imperative to survive.  We already perform involuntary physical actions instinctually in order to survive (e.g. fight-or-flight response, etc.).  Having an emotional element (such as fear) combined with our human intellect and self-awareness, can drive us to survive in less autonomous ways thus providing an even greater evolutionary advantage for natural selection.  For example, many people have been driven to circumvent death through scientific advancements.  Another factor to consider is that the fear of death may largely be a fear of the unknown or unfamiliar (related to the fear of change).  It shouldn’t be surprising then that a religion offering ways to appease this fear would become successful.

Could it be that our biological imperative to survive, coupled with the logical realization that we are mortal, have catalyzed a religious means for some form of cognitive dissonance reduction?  Humans that are in denial about (or are at least uncomfortable with) their inevitable death will likely be drawn towards religious beliefs that circumvent this inevitability with some form of spiritual eternal life or immortality.  Not only can this provide a means of circumventing mortality (perhaps by transcending the biological imperative with a spiritual version), but it can also reduce or eliminate the unknown aspects that contribute to the fear of death depending on the after-death specifics outlined by the religion.

A strange irony exists regarding what I call “spiritual imperatives” and I think it is worth mentioning.  If a religion professes that one’s ultimate goal should be preparation for the after-life (or some apocalyptic scenario), then adherents to such a doctrine may end up sacrificing their biological imperative (or make it a lower priority) in favor of some spiritual imperative.  That is, they may start to care less about their physical survival or quality of life in the interest of attaining what they believe to be spiritual survival.  In doing so, they may be sacrificing or de-prioritizing the very biological imperative that likely catalyzed the formation of their spiritual imperative in the first place.  So as strange as it may be, the fear of death may lead to some religious doctrines that actually hasten one’s inevitable death.

Morality, Justice, and Manipulation

Morality seems to be deeply ingrained in our very nature, and as a result we can see a universal implementation of moral structures in human societies.  It seems likely that this deeply ingrained sense of morality, much like many other innate traits shared by the human race, is a result of natural selection in the ongoing evolution of our species.  Our sense of morality has driven many beneficial behaviors (though not always) that tend to increase the survival of the individual.  For example, the golden rule (a principle that may even serve as a sort of universal moral creed) serves to benefit every individual by encouraging cooperation and altruism at the expense of selfish motives.  Just as some individual cells eventually evolved to become cooperative multi-cellular organisms (in order to gain mutual benefits in a “non-zero sum” game), so have other species (including human beings) evolved to cooperate with one another to increase mutual benefits including that of survival (John Maynard Smith and other biologists have shared this view of how evolution can lead to greater degrees of cooperation).  A sense of morality helps to reinforce this cooperation.  Evolution aside, establishing some kind of moral framework will naturally help to maximize what is deemed to be desirable behavior.  Religion has been an extremely effective means of accomplishing this goal.  First of all, religions tend to define morality in very specific ways.  Religion has also utilized fairly effective incentives and motivations for the masses to behave in ways desired by the society (or by its leaders).

Many religions profess a form of moral absolutism, where moral values are seen as objective, unquestionable, and often ordained by the authority of a god.  This makes a religion very attractive and effective by simplifying the moral structure of the society and backing it up with the authority of a deity.  If the rules are believed to be given by the authority of a deity, then there will be few (if any) people willing to question them and as a result there will be a much greater level of obedience.  The alternative, moral relativism, is more difficult to apply to a society’s dynamic as the behavioral goals in a morally relativistic society may not be very stable nor well-defined, even if moral relativism carries with it the benefits of religious or philosophical tolerance as well as open-mindedness.  Thus, moral absolutism is more likely to lead to productive societies, which may help to explain why moral absolutism has been such a successful religious meme (as well as the fact that morality in general seems to be a universal part of human nature).

Though I’m a moral realist in a strict sense since I believe that there are objective moral facts that exist, I’d also like to stipulate that I’m also a moral relativist, in the sense that I believe that any objective moral facts that exist are dependent on a person’s biology, psychology, and how those effect one’s ultimate goals for a satisfying and fulfilling life.  Since these factors may have some variance across a species and for sure a variance across different species, then morals are ultimately relative to those variances (if any exist).

In any case, I can appreciate why most people are drawn away from relativism (in any form).  It is difficult for most people to think about reality as consisting of elements that aren’t simply black-and-white.  After all, we are used to categorizing the world around us — fracturing it into finite, manageable, and well-defined parts that we can deal with and understand.  We often forget that we are subjectively experiencing the world around us, and that our individual frames of reference and perspectives can be quite different from person to person.  Relativism just isn’t very compatible with the common human illusion of seeing the world objectively, whether it is how we look at the physical world, language, our moral values, etc.

As for moral incentives, religions often imply that there will be some type of reward for the adherent and/or some type of punishment for the deviants.  Naturally anybody introduced to the religion (i.e. potential converts) will weigh the potential risks and benefits, with some people implementing Pascal’s wager and the like, likely leading to a larger number of followers over time.  You will also have established religious members that adhere to the specific rules within the religion based on the same moral incentives.  That is, the moral incentives put into place (i.e. punishment-reward system) can serve the purposes of obtaining religious members in the first place, and also to ensure that the religious members maintain a high level of obedience within the religion.  Of these converts and well-established followers, there will likely be a mixture of those that are primarily motivated by the fear of punishment and those primarily motivated by the desire for a reward.  Psychoanalysis aside, it wouldn’t be surprising if by briefly examining one’s behavior and personality, that one could ascertain an individual’s primary religious motivations (for their conversion and/or subsequent religious obedience).  It is likely however that most people would fail to see these motivations at work as they would prefer to think of their religious affiliations as a result of some revelation of truth.

The divine authorization and punishment-reward system within many religions can also provide a benefit to those that desire power and the manipulation of the populace.  If those in power desire an effective way to control the populace, they can create a religious structure with rules, morals, goals (including wars and conquests), etc., that benefit their agenda and then convince others that they are divinely authorized.  As long as the populace is convinced that the rules, morals, and goals are of a divine source, they will be more likely to comply with them.  Clearly this effect will be further amplified if a divine punishment-reward system is believed to exist.

One last point I’d like to make regarding morality involves the desire for divine justice.  People no doubt take comfort in the thought of everything being fair and orderly (from their perspective) in the long run, regardless of whether or not any unfairness presents itself during their lifetime.  It is much less comforting to accept that some people will do whatever they want and may die without ever receiving what one believes to be a just consequence, and/or that one has sacrificed many enjoyable human experiences in the interest of maintaining their religious requirements with potentially no long-term (i.e. after-death) return for their efforts.  The idea of an absolute justice being implemented after death definitely helps reinforce religious obedience in a world that has imperfect and subjective views (as well as implementations) of justice.

Desire for Free Will

Another common religious meme (related to the aforementioned moral frameworks) is the belief in classical free will.  If people practicing a particular religion are taught that they will be rewarded or punished for their actions, then it is logical for them to assume that they have free will over their actions — otherwise their moral responsibility would be non-existent and any divinely bestowed consequences incurred would be unjustified, meaningless, and futile.  So, in these types of religions, it is assumed that people should be able to make free choices that are not influenced or constrained by factors such as: genetics, any behavioral conditioning environment, any deterministic causal chain, or any random course of events for that matter.  That is, everyone’s behavior should be causa sui.  This way, it is the individual that is directly responsible for their behavior and ultimate fate rather than any factors outside of the individual’s control.

While the sciences have shown a plethora of evidence negating the existence of classical free will, many people continue to believe that free will exists.  It seems that people are naturally driven to believe that they have free will for a few reasons.  For one, the belief in free will is consistent with the illusion of free will that we consciously experience.  We do not feel that there is something or someone else in control of our fate (due to the principles of priority, consistency, and exclusivity as explained in Wagner’s Theory of Apparent Mental Causation), and so we have no immediate reason to believe that free will doesn’t exist.  It certainly feels like we have free will, even though the mechanistic physical laws of nature (whether deterministic or indeterministic) imply that we do not.  Second, from a deeper psychological perspective, if one believes in moral responsibility, has feelings of pride or shame for their actions, etc., the belief in free will is naturally reinforced.  People want to believe that they are in control because it better justifies the aforementioned punishment-reward system of both society and many religions.

Now granted, if all people agreed that free will was non-existent (most people assume we have free will), society’s system of legislation or law enforcement wouldn’t likely change much if at all.  Criminals being punished or detained for the protection of the majority of society would likely be a continued practice because pragmatically speaking, law enforcement has proven itself to be effective for providing safety, providing crime deterrence and so forth.  However, if people universally accepted that free will was non-existent, it would likely change how they view the punishment-reward system of society and religion.  People would probably focus more on the underlying genetic causes and conditioning environment that led to undesirable behavior rather than falsely looking at the individual as inherently bad or as someone who made poor choices that could have been made differently.

If someone feels that they have a lot to gain from a particular religion (or has invested so much of themselves into the religion already), and free will is a philosophical requirement for that particular religion, then they will likely find a way to rationalize the existence of free will (or rationalize any other religious assumption), despite the strong evidence against it (or lack of evidence in support of it).  There are even a few religions that simultaneously profess the existence of free will as well as the existence of an omniscient god that has complete knowledge of the future — despite the logical incompatibility of these two propositions.  Clearly, the desire for free will (whether conscious and/or unconscious) is stronger than most people realize.

Also, it seems that there is a general human desire for one’s life to have meaning and purpose, and perhaps some people feel that having free will over their actions is the only way to give their life meaning and purpose, as opposed to their life’s course being pre-determined or random.

Anthropocentrism & Purpose

Since religions are a product of human beings, it is not surprising to see that many of them have some anthropocentric purpose or element.  There seems to be a tendency for humans to assume that they are more important than anything else on this planet (or anything else in the universe for that matter).  This assumption may be fueled by the fact that human intelligence has brought us to the top of the food chain and has allowed us to manipulate our environment in ways that seem relatively extraordinary.  Humans certainly recognize this status and some may see it as necessarily divinely ordained or at least special in some way.  This helps to answer the age-old philosophical question: What is the meaning of life and/or why are we here?

By raising the value of human life over all other animals, religion can serve to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, and thus separate humans from any animalistic traits that we dislike about ourselves.  Anthropocentric views have also been used to endorse otherwise questionable behavior that humans may choose to employ on the rest of the nature around them.  On the flip side, anthropocentrism can in fact lead to a humanistic drive or feeling of human responsibility to make the world a better place for many different creatures.  It seems however that the most powerful religions have often endorsed a human domination of the world and environment around them.  This selfish drive is more in-line with the rest of the animal kingdom as every animal fights to survive, flourish, and ultimately do what they believe best serves their interests.  Either way, elevating human importance can provide many with a sense of purpose regardless of what they think that purpose is.  This sense of purpose can be important, especially for those that recognize how short our human history has been relative to the history of all life on Earth, and also how relatively insignificant our planet is in such an unfathomably large universe.  Giving humans a special purpose can also help those that are uncomfortable with the idea of living in such a mechanistic world.

Desire for Protection

Certainly people are going to feel more secure if they believe that there is someone or something that is always protecting them.  Whether or not we have people in our lives that protect us in one way or another, nothing can compare to a divine protector.  It is certainly possible that this desire for protection is an artifact of the maternal-child dynamic from one’s earliest years of life, thus driving us to seek out similar comforts and securities.  Generally speaking however, the desire for protection is yet another facet of the biological imperative to survive.  Either way, the desire for some form of protection has likely played a role in religious constructs.

If religious members fail to receive any obvious protection or safety in specific cases (i.e. if they are harmed in some way), it is often the case that many find a way to reconcile this actuality by coincidentally believing that whatever happens is ultimately governed by some god’s will or plan.  This way the comforts of believing in a protective, benevolent, or loving god are not jeopardized in any circumstance.  This is a good example of cognitive dissonance reduction being accomplished through theological rationalization.  That is, people may need a special combination of beliefs (which may evolve over time) in order to reconcile their religious and theological presuppositions with one another or with reality.

Group Dynamics

Another form of protection (and an evident form at that) offered by religious membership is that which results from group formation and dynamics.  Specifically, I am referring to the benefits of both protection and memetic reinforcement by the rest of the group.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that an individual will tend to have a greater survival advantage if they are a member of a cooperative group (as I mentioned previously in the section titled: “Morality, Justice, and Manipulation”).  For this reason and many others, people will often try to join or form groups.  There is always greater power in large numbers, and so even if certain religious claims or elements are difficult to accept, many people will instinctually flock toward the group and its example because it is safer than being alone and more vulnerable.  After joining a group (or perhaps in order to join the group) many may even find themselves behaving in ways that violate their own previously self-ascribed values.  Group dynamics and tendencies can be quite powerful indeed.

After a religion becomes well established and gains enough mass and momentum, people increasingly gravitate toward its power and influence even if that requires them to significantly modify their behavior.  In fact, if the religion gains enough influence and power over a culture or society, there may be little (if any) freedom to refrain from practicing the religion anyway, so even if people aren’t drawn to a popular religion, they may be forced into it.

So as we can see, group dynamics have likely influenced religion in multiple ways.  The memetic reinforcement that groups provide has promoted the success and perpetuation of particular religious memes (regardless of what those particular memes are).  There also seems to be a critical mass component, whereby after a religion gains enough mass and momentum, it is significantly more difficult for it to subside over time.  Thus, many religions that have become successful have done so by simply reaching some critical mass.

God of the gaps

Another reason that many religions or religious memes have been successful has been due to a lack of knowledge about nature.  That is, at some point in the past there arose a “god of the gaps” mentality whereby unsatisfactory, insufficient, or non-existent naturalistic explanations led to deistic or theistic presuppositions.  We’ve seen that for a large period in history, polytheism was quite popular as people were ascribing multiple gods to explain a multitude of phenomena.  Eventually some monotheistic religions precipitated but they merely replaced the multiple “gods of the gaps” with one single “God of the gaps”.  This consolidation of gods may have resulted (at least in part) from an application of Occam’s razor as well as to differentiate new religions and their respective doctrines from their polytheistic predecessors.  As science and empiricism continued to develop further in the wake of these religious world views, the phenomena previously ascribed to a god (or to many gods) became increasingly explainable by predictable, mechanistic, natural laws.  By applying Occam’s razor one last time, science and empiricism has effectively been eliminating the final “God of the gaps”.

The psychological, social, and political benefits given by various religious constructs (including but not limited to those I’ve mentioned within this post) had likely already set a precedent and established a level of momentum that would continue to impede the acceptance of scientific explanations — even up to this day.  This may help to explain the prevalence of supernatural or miraculous religious beliefs despite their incompatibility with science and empiricism.  Once the most powerful religions gained traction, rather than abandoning beliefs of the supernatural in the wake of scientific progress, it was science that was initially censored and hindered.  Eventually, science and religion began to co-exist more easily, but in order for them to be at all reconciled with one another, many religious interpretations or explanations were modified accordingly (or the religious followers continued to ignore science).  Belief can be extremely powerful — so powerful in fact that even if a proposition isn’t actually true, if a person believes it to be true strongly enough, it can become a reality for that person.  In some of these cases, it doesn’t matter if there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to refute the belief, for that evidence will be ignored if it does not corroborate the believer’s artificial reality.

Another “God of the gaps” example that still perpetuates many religious beliefs is the mis-attributed power of prayer.  Prayer is actually effective for healing or helping to heal some ailments (for example), but science has shown (and is continuing to show) how this is nothing more than a placebo effect.  To give just one example, several studies on heart patients demonstrated that prayer was only effective on their recovery when the patients knew that they were being prayed for.  This further illustrates how the “God of the gaps” argument has never been very strong, and is only shrinking with every new discovery made in science.  Nevertheless, even as evidence accumulates that shows how a religious person’s notions are incorrect, there are psychological barriers in the brain that keep one from accepting that new information.  In the case of prayer just mentioned, a person who believes in prayer will have a confirmation bias in their brain that serves to remember when prayers are “answered” and forget about prayers that are not (regardless of what is being prayed for).

In other cases, if one chooses to actually consider any refutative evidence, it can become extremely difficult if not impossible for one to reconcile certain religious beliefs with reality.  However, if it is psychologically easier for a person to modify their religious beliefs (even in some radical way) rather than abandoning their religion altogether, they will likely do so.  It is clear how powerful these religious driving factors are when we see people either blatantly ignoring reason and the senses and/or adjusting their religion or theology in order to reconcile their beliefs with reality such that they can maintain the comfort and security of their deeply invested religious convictions.

It should be noted that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality that many people share may result when the human mind asks certain questions for which it doesn’t have the cognitive machinery to answer, regardless of any scientific progress made.  If they are answerable questions (in theory), it may take a substantial amount of cognitive evolution in order to have the capability to answer them (or in order to see certain questions as being completely irrational and thus eliminate them from any further inquiry).  Even if this epistemologically-enhancing level of cognitive evolution did take place, we may very well be defined as a new species anyway, and thus technically speaking, homo sapiens could forever remain unable to access this knowledge regardless.  It would then follow that the “god(s) of the gaps” mentality (and any of its byproducts) may forever be a part of “human” nature.  Time will tell.

Final Thoughts

It appears that there have been several evolutionary, psychological, social, and political factors that have likely influenced the formation, acceptance, and ultimate success of many religious constructs.  It seems that the largest factors influencing religious constructs (and thus the commonalities seen between many religions) have been the psychological comforts that religion has provided, the human cognitive limitations leading to supernatural explanations, as well as some naturally-selected survival advantages that have ensued.  The desire for these psychological comforts (likely unconscious although not necessarily) seems to catalyze the manifestation of extremely strong beliefs, and not only has this affected the interplay between science (or empiricism) and religion, but these desires have also made it easier for religion to be used for manipulative purposes (among other reasons).  Furthermore, cognitive biases in the human brain often serve to maintain one’s beliefs, despite contradictory evidence against them.  Perhaps it is not too surprising to see such a complex interplay of variables behind religion, and also so many commonalities, as religion has been an extremely significant facet of the human condition.