Journal

This was perhaps the best week of the year thus far for me, in terms of the arts. First, for Valentine’s Day, Boanne and I went with friends to see Fun Home at the Curran Theater, which has just reopened for this production. Fun Home is based off a 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (who came up with the Bechdel test) and won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical (prior to Hamilton). Prior to watching this, my favorite musicals were, in order, Wicked, Les Miserables, and probably Rent, which I had also just seen last weekend. Fun Home is now securely somewhere between Les Mis and Wicked for an absolutely devastating story filled with grace and heart. The most novel aspect of this production was having Alison, in the near-present, as a constant presence on stage, observing her past and seeking answers as she creates her work of art. Very few productions in any medium can make me weep, but a climactic, fourth-wall and heart breaking moment in this musical did (and as I later told my high school students, “The best experiences in life are those that make you cry”). I am looking forward to getting my hands on the graphic novel, and I implore you to seek this out if you haven’t already.

That same day I pre-ordered the new Dirty Projectors self-titled album, which is fueled by Dave Longstreth’s breakup with bandmate Amber Coffman (who has some great stuff on her own now as well). One of the most incredible songs so far is “Keep Your Name”, which grabs a piece of the chorus from my favorite song from the last album, “The Impregnable Question”, and turns it sour, the phrase “We don’t see eye to eye” taken out of context of “But I need you” and threaded through a distorted, tortured soundscape. This is the kind of real-time human intimacy and fallout that artists generously share with the world, that makes music so compelling to me. Jens Lekman’s Life Will See You Now came out in full on Friday, and unfortunately did not live up to the joy of the title single “Evening Prayer”, but will probably grow on me in the coming weeks as a Belle & Sebastien-like pop album that is fresh in its un-American-ness.

This weekend Boanne and I visited the SFMOMA and I got to see Sohei Nishino’s work again, a grandiose love-letter to cities, a larger-than-life manifestation of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City through a collage of thousands of photographs laid out to mimic the geographic map of each subject city. Then we went to see the sequel to The Lego Movie, which happens to have been the movie we watched on our “first date”, and it once again proved that you don’t need live action or anything beyond Lego blocks on the screen to far surpass the quality of 95% of screenplays and character development in films today. Bravo, Warner Animation Group, for putting creativity and authenticity to excellent use.

And then… I cozied up to Cixin Liu’s sci-fi The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three Body Problem, on Saturday night, and, sometime Sunday morning, emerged out of a mind-blowing journey into the depths of human ethics and universal truths. I know I seem to have more superlatives than is reasonable so far this year, but I mean this: Cixin Liu is an absolute genius, the kind of philosopher artist that should represent humanity in the face of aliens. And The Dark Forest was staggeringly epic in its scope and confidence, a massive augmentation of the world set up in The Three Body Problem that reminded me of the brilliant scope of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which is now my former favorite science fiction novel of time. It literally pains me to not be able to talk about all the incredible ideas presented in this story, so I am nearly willing to smuggle these books in stacks out of the San Francisco Public Library system to get my friends to read them, or Amazon Prime them directly to you, just so we can bask together in the glory of the story. In fact, it has triggered an idea for a short story of my own, a slight variation on the theme, which may be strong enough to move me to actually write it out later this year.

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In this post I’d like to finally get to the meat of this project: a systematic construction of rational and honest views on current topics of ethical importance. I’ve felt it necessary to build a strong foundation about my ethical system before diving into specific ethical issues, which I have preliminarily done here, but it feels appropriate to move into phase 2, given the pace at which real life is throwing us ethical curveballs. I suspect I will get through at least preliminary comments on the following topics by the end of tonight: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, Islamophobia, border vetting, and culture.

First, as an overview of the ethical principles I will take as granted from here on out:

  • Reasoning is the foundation of ethics, given that ethics deals with values and behaviors at the societal scale, and to have alignment of individual values and behaviors across a society, you have to be able to give “reasons” to others for why you believe what you believe, and why you do what you do. That is the essence of reasoning.
  • I believe there is fundamentally one line of reasoning (an “escalator”, in Peter Singer’s conception) about values that leads us inevitably to the ethic of universal well-being. I believe this strongly enough, at this point, that in principle I shouldn’t have to explain this (but I can dwell on this more in future posts, if desired); the degree to which you accept the expansive circle of well-being is, in my view, the degree to which you are truly reasoning. I don’t mean that to be condescending; in truth, the vast majority of our life circumstances do not require us to truly reason (imagine the obnoxious child in your life that keeps asking “why” over and over again; that is the only kind of person who is “truly” reasoning at peak performance, while the rest of us have fallen into states of ignorance, dishonesty, rustiness, or a combination of all of the above). And, in fact, many of our “cultures” and “customs” actively obviate us of the responsibility of reasoning, by design. So back to the point of this point: there is an objective “right” direction to ethical reasoning, in my view, and it’s the equal consideration of the well-being of all beings of equal consciousness (and less conscious animals, accordingly).
  • The best thought experiment I have heard of to explain the “rightness” of this ethical system is the following: for any ethical view you are debating, simply imagine that once you have conceived of the version of society you believe is “right”, then you are assigned at random to live in that society. This automatically aligns your thinking with the common sense criteria that your “ethic” cannot be individualistic, and must work for all people in a society (which, as I have already pointed out, is part of the literal definition of an ethic). Imagine creating a “perfect” world, with the caveat that once you have created that perfect world, you are born into it at random. If you truly hold yourself to that thought experiment, I can’t imagine much variation in what we would conceive that “perfect” world to be like. It would be a world in which everybody has equal opportunity, and likely equal outcome to some degree as well. If you have an interesting argument against this, I would be very interested to discuss it.
  • The challenge, of course, is whether we are able to accurately measure the increase or decrease of universal well-being comparatively between any two ethical scenarios (say, yes or no on abortion, or yes or no on gun control). This is where “rationality” and “empiricism” enter the fray as the best tools we have to make those ethical judgments. I am of the opinion that we must always employ the best reasoning we are capable of to make our ethical decisions, and that dogma of all forms (across the entire political spectrum) is at odds with rational thinking.
  • For the current topics I will consider, or any kind of debate I enter with colleagues, I would like to employ the following strategy. First, we have to agree on our fundamental areas of agreement and disagreement. That means distilling our views to their fundamental values and assumptions. If we find that our values are at odds (i.e. at different points along that arrow of reasoning from localized, gene-focused well-being to universal well-being), then that is the most fundamental area of disagreement, and we’d have no good reason to argue further if we cannot reach agreement there. If, on the other hand, our values are aligned (i.e. both believing in the equal value of all beings), then our disagreement can only be in the assumptions we make to calculate well-being. That disagreement would ultimately stem from different facts (which of course must be vetted for accuracy, a question of science), differences in methods of calculation, or different heuristics around uncertainty if we do not have the facts.
  • At a high level, any disagreements I expect to have with people around religion and political ideology are very likely at that core level of value difference (and I invite you to consider this very, very seriously before arguing out of principle). Once we’ve gotten past those spectra of polarization, which I think are the root disease of our public discourse, then we can get into the truly interesting, wonky, and vital questions of calibrating and testing our methods of reasoning. My final point I’ll make here is that I think of debate not as a zero-sum game of someone winning and someone losing. If you think a debate is zero-sum game, you probably are arguing about that core value system of selfishness and selflessness. But if we are having the kind of debate that I would like to have, we are in a non-zero-sum game. We are debating in order to co-discover truths that will lead to greater universal well-being. I’d like to think this is a really inviting and liberating motivation for us all to pursue intellectual honesty.

Alright, so now that those premises have been covered, let’s dive into the weeds…

Freedom of Speech

I agree with Sam Harris on the idea that freedom of speech, our first amendment in the US, is the most important right we have as human beings. I may even go so far as to say that it is the only fundamental liberty we should guarantee in societies, besides the other rights to life and pursuit of happiness. This is because, as I will paraphrase of Harris’s view, communication by writing or speech is the only means we have to reason with one another besides violence. When you do not have the right to argue your viewpoints, then you may be compelled to assert those views through physical force. So I am unequivocally on the side of free speech as it applies to current events (the case of yelling “Fire” in a theater, or hate speech where the negative impact on well-being is immediately causal, are specific cases which are perfectly OK to penalize without compromising on freedom of speech in the society at large). That means that I am for cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed in less-than-favorable ways. I am for somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley or Stanford, and against the idea of “safe spaces” on campuses, and am appalled by so-called “liberals” who illiberally restrict the fundamental right to free speech. If you have a problem with the ideas being presented, then your weapon should be the same right to free speech, not a physical weapon. If we want to resist bad ideas like white supremacy or Islamic fundamentalism, then our society should trust that the social cost of reputation will be a powerful enough disincentive. If not, then I think we have to improve our institutions of knowledge and reasoning, without resorting to violence.

Freedom of Religion

Now things get trickier. As I said, I’m all for freedom of communicating ideas, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” those ideas are. But given my ethical system, I do have deliberate criticisms of religions, which to me are institutionalized ethical systems based on dogmatic (disprovable) ideas most often manifested in “sacred” texts like the Bible or Quran. I can get much deeper into arguments on religion, and would like to do this systematically with reasonable religious people as part of this writing project, but for now I’ll just say that my views on “freedom” of religion are very complicated. I’m not sure if it’s as clear-cut as freedom of speech, because of two main problems. First, fundamentalist religions can be directly against freedom of speech. If you cannot speak against Islam in a fundamentalist state in the Middle East, for fear of literally being stoned to death, then that is incompatible with freedom of speech, and I cannot advocate for the rights of that religion to exist. So any version of Islam that follows the strict principle of violence against Muslims who have apotheosized, or more generally preaches systematic violence as part of its divine ethical system, cannot be practiced as a “right”, in my opinion. In this case, a “sterilized” version of Islam, as most of us have encountered through Muslim friends in the western world, and pretty much every modern version of Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism, do not violate this problem. But that brings me to my second problem with freedom of religion. Our culture has embedded religion into childhood education, through family or through school (as has been the core value of the religious Right, and as will certainly be championed by Betsy DeVos). Given the natural malleability of ethical values in children, and the powerful grip of religion as a culture, I think we can hardly say that children in religious upbringings are “free” to hold beliefs and values that are contrary to that religion. So while I don’t think I can rationally be opposed to the freedom of people to believe disprovable things in a structured social institution, I do think the exception can be made to prevent inculcation of dogmatic ideas into children through our educational institutions, and to break up (like we break up monopolies) religions that promote ideas that are at direct odds with the well-being of others, and of course, separation of church and state.

Islamophobia

To connect this more broadly to the timely question of a Muslim ban, I will share a few remarks. First, I think Islamophobia is a really sloppy liberal label to throw onto a complex and serious set of ideas in our global society that deserve rational discourse. I say this to try to provide as much of a buffer against that immediate reaction to my next few remarks. While I do not support a “Muslim ban”, I would support a “terrorist ban”, as I hope everybody else would. The issue, of course, is the degree of certainty we can reliably have about that profiling, which fundamentally is a question of how much we can ascertain about somebody’s beliefs and values at the border. This, of course, is the essential goal of “vetting”, which absolutely must happen at a border if we have laws which resist certain ethics like murder. No matter how “tolerant” you are as a liberal, you cannot be “tolerant” of somebody who vows to kill homosexuals, so you have to seriously consider the degree to which you may be dogmatizing your concept of tolerance to the point of it actually contradicting true liberal values. So, as a citizen of a liberal society, I do believe there are ideas which we cannot accept as part of our vetting process for immigrants and refugees. But unless somebody flat out tells a CBP official at the border that they “vow to kill homosexuals”, actual terrorists are of course likely to lie about their views. Therefore we have to be strategic in our design of vetting procedures so as to be as confident as we can about our identification of people who harbor ideas that are actually illiberal. Here, I agree with Sam Harris that there are many types of questions that are truly reliable points of information to have, at least compared to not having them. I do think that a question about religious affiliation is perfectly reasonable at the border, because we can see how powerful religious convictions can be (enough to be the only type of belief system that reliably leads some people of specific affiliations to kill themselves in suicide bombings; and if you don’t agree with this, we have a lot to debate about reasoning in a follow-up conversation). But of course the label “Muslim” is way too broad! In fact, Muslims who don’t believe in honor killings and jihad are literally the most important people to give refuge to in America, because they are the ones who should ultimately lead the reformation of their own religion, the invalidation of politicized illiberal interpretations of their sacred texts, just as the Anglican faiths have been reformed over many centuries of monumental human suffering. So in summary, I obviously think that the specific ways in which the Trump administration has gone about dealing with border vetting have been outrageously poor and seeped in all other kinds of dogmatic prejudices or plain stupidity. But I am afraid that the Left is veering away from the “right” answer if it cannot reason through the fundamental issues of illiberalism at hand. In fact, if the Left continues to resist reason on this topic, we are unfortunately left with the Right being the only political ideology that has a potential to be reasonable on this issue — and that’s a scary thought.

On Culture and Identity

I know some of the views above, if read at lighter-than-face value, may lead to accusations of me being a bigot or Islamophobe, which I am fully prepared to challenge (perhaps leading me to discover true bigotry in the views expressed so far). But to place myself on firmer (or shakier) footing, I’ll end this section with some generalized views. The Left is notorious for respecting “culture” and “identity politics”, and while I consider myself progressive in many ways, I cannot accept this typical “social justice warrior” mentality. First, I would urge for a rethinking of what we mean by identity, as it relates to rights. I think there is a major difference between identity that is natural and identity that is constructed. Identity that is natural is not your choice, like your race, level of ability/disability, gender (biologically at birth), sexual orientation (as we understand it), etc. Given my ethical system that values every human equally, the only way we can maintain that is by making sure that differences caused by natural identities do not lead systematically to differences in well-being. Hence racism and homophobia being fundamentally illiberal problems in our society. But I would put constructed identities, like religion and, as it appears, some “gender identities” (which, I’ll admit, I am very uninformed about, and would graciously accept education from somebody who is an expert on these recently discovered “other genders” or “gender fluidities” that appear, by my powers of reason, to be more constructed than not), on the list of “cultural phenomenon” that should not necessarily be granted the same rights of equal treatment and equal outcome. More broadly, I must say that “culture” is not something I value innately. Culture is simply a series of popular ideas and values; nothing in culture is inherently “right” in my ethical system. Cultures can be systematically compared using ethical reasoning, and one culture can be determined to be more “ethical” than another. Of course, there are many micro cases in which it is difficult to make that comparison, but other comparisons should be fairly black and white, even for the dogmatic. The best example, in a modern context, I believe is, again, fundamentalist Islam. I am perplexed that feminists can be anywhere close to supporting of women living in Islamist societies which force body veils and female genital mutilation, and condone honor killings, and would seriously want to debate this if somebody is willing to enlighten me with good reasoning (of course, I support the freedom of women in the US to wear hijabs, because they literally have the choice to wear them or not to wear them; that’s what’s critical). So, in summary, I do not believe the Left’s dogmatic tolerance and protection of “culture” and “identity” to have merit in its current form, and hope that honest conversation and reasoning about this can occur without the righteous pre-labeling of bigotry.

I think it would be prudent for me to stop here, if not sooner. I will probably let the reaction to this post dictate the order in which I revisit these arguments with much greater detail and reasoning, as I have proposed to do systematically. And I fully anticipate and hope to have my judgment changed on at least a few issues, as that is the outcome we must allow rational debate to yield if we are ever to empower our societies to flourish through conversation and not violence. Otherwise, the next chance I get to write, I’d like to get into other topics like environmentalism, more on culture, and Trumpism.

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With an hour this evening, I’d like to touch on a few outstanding topics (outstanding here meaning simply that they have been left standing in line… I use the phrase “outstanding items” quite regularly in my project work and I do wonder whether the people I work with are understanding that in the construction management sense, or as pretentiousness…).

The Expanding Circle

I have begun reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle and it’s been an epiphany, in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I could reliably anticipate every new idea as something that I’ve been forming in my own mind. I suspect most of this was seeded by conversations I’ve heard on Sam Harris’s podcast, but I also believe that my last few blog posts are evidence of a number of authentically derived concepts around ethical systems and universal morality that are nearly aligned with Singer’s book. If anything this is making me feel more confident in my competence for moral reasoning and may encourage me to write more forcefully on these topics.

Essentially, Singer does a great job making the link between sociobiology (the territory of Dawkins) and philosophy, with a focus on the crucial role of reasoning. One concept he has articulated especially well, which I will certainly want to expand upon in future essays, is that the capacity for advanced reasoning in the human brain, at whatever point our genetic variations brought this capacity fully into dominance, was fundamentally the harbinger of ethics, which only exists in societies that need to defend their actions to one another. “Reason”, in its simplest definition, is the capacity to ask “why”. Moral reasoning is an internal questioning of why you value the things you do, while ethical reasoning deals with socially agreed-upon rules. Singer then emphasizes that “rationality” is a specific line of reasoning that deals with “calculation”. As soon as we need to defend our values and actions to others, we need to be able to justify those actions in some general manner, meaning we need to consider the interests of others somewhat equally. As soon as you are measuring and comparing the interests and values of different people in different scenarios, you fundamentally need to be pursuing some method of rationality. And so Singer’s framework squares perfectly with the flowchat I proposed a few posts ago, his book’s focus ultimately being a step I glossed over, the essential “expanding of the circle” of valuation from empathy to compassion.

There is so much rich territory to dive into here which I think would do good for anyone. Fundamentally our current political climate is just a microcosm of an overall lack of ethical reasoning in our societies. I still believe that the essence of our ethical dilemma is “intellectual honesty”, and Singer’s writing is making this clearer in my mind. I am now confident that there is essentially one “ethic”, which is universal well-being, and there are only two real reasons why we aren’t approaching it: lack of intellectual reasoning, and lack of intellectual honesty. I think the solution to the intellectual reasoning problem is progress in education, science, and technology. The solution to the intellectual honesty problem is less clear, more like a question of personal moral strength.

Apologies for the lack of direction of the passages above; I promise that once I finish this book I will formally update my ethical system with serious effort in clarity.

The Blank Slate

In my last post I mentioned one of the great insights out of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which was that we have hardwired intuitive reasoning in our brains thanks to natural selection. I want to offer a concise analogy here: our brains are essentially like smartphones with really terrible software programs pre-installed, like Internet Explorer, that are terrible at doing what they’re meant to do, but came as part of the package. So what education should do, first and foremost, is uninstall that bad software and install the equivalent of Google Chrome, which not only corrects for serious design flaws in the incumbent software but expands our potential to gain knowledge and solve problems.

RENT

This Saturday I got in line for $25 rush tickets for RENT at the Golden Gate Theater in SF about an hour before sale (which was itself two hours before the musical began). There were only 32 tickets at this price and it seemed like I barely got to buy 4 of them, so for those interested in this strategy, I offer the heuristic: arrive at least one hour early for rush tickets (Note that RENT is unique in offering $25 rush tickets; otherwise you have a larger supply of $40 tickets). I had listened to select songs out of the soundtrack in high school, and sort of understood the plot, but was fully satisfied by the whole production on Saturday. Golden Gate Theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit so it appears that all the productions have to come up with a novel way of featuring the instruments on stage (I’ve only seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch otherwise), and I thought the set was quite well designed in its versatility of movement. My overall takeaway was that RENT is as relevant as ever in a place like San Francisco, including the obvious timeliness of questions of protest and livability, and the more universal complexity of intimacy.

Oakland

This evening I attended an event at SPUR Oakland which featured some native Oakland residents who are in the social enterprise sector, working on topics ranging from local employment to sex trafficking to art incubation. I was hoping to get a more diverse and normal representation of Oakland residents to calibrate my understanding of what matters to the community; the socially progressive elite just doesn’t seem to be representative of the norm. But they raised important questions around minimum wage, gentrification, and inclusivity which, to me, are fundamentally unknowns about mechanisms in urban systems. How exactly does increasing minimum wage affect the community? I’m not interested in dogmatic opinions that align with an unquestioned concern for victims; I want real evidence and reasoning here. A questioner astutely questioned whether a purely dogmatic activism for minimum wage may not have led to adverse effects on employment due to big retailers like Walmart moving out. I would explore that terrain further, asking whether an increase of minimum wage is more addressing a root problem or a symptom, and whether, as a supposedly progressive measure, it is fundamentally flawed without a series of other key measures, like regulation of monopolistic business so that they can’t simply exercise the power of exit, or subsidization of smaller local businesses so they are bearing the cost of minimum wage hikes inadvertently, or simply taking on the perfectly sound conservative goals of reducing “cost disease” in many sectors of our society, so that we don’t need to hike the minimum wage in the first place. Any conversation that does not acknowledge the many facets of urban issues as I have just illustrated may only contribute to the polarization of issues that need to be evidence-based.

Snow Crash

While this sci-fi by Neal Stephenson is the genesis of many fundamental tropes of our modern tech culture, as a novel it was mostly trash.

Movies

This weekend I watched John Wick Chapter 2 and The Red Turtle. I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick, fully understanding the banality of shoot-em-up films and the seeming hypocrisy of supporting such films in a rampantly violent culture. All I can say is that, if we were to have a substantive ethical education, I think we would be able to consume such films as purely cathartic and escapist thrill rides behind the screen of fiction, without any danger of blurring the lines. I also think the film actually is just brilliant in its creativity and memedom (best scene: surreptitious gunfight with silencers in a crowded One World Trade Center terminal). The Red Turtle, in contrast, was 80 minutes without dialogue and a fantasy story told in minimalist imagery that often felt like a zen rock garden in its stoicism. While beautiful, it simply did not work for me, especially compared to Studio Ghibli films that can be profound without literally having to be a Buddhist-scale test of patience.

Creativity

A friend of mine in Thailand is writing about creativity, and I will be sharing my thoughts on this fascinating topic shortly!

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I’d like to share some new music and books I’ve enjoyed so far in February!

First off, Father John Misty is coming out with a new album that sounds thematically closer to Fear Fun. Of what he’s released so far, I particularly like “Ballad of the Dying Man” which has a rich chord progression and classic Josh Tillman songwriting: “So says the dying man once I’m in the box / Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok / And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked / The homophobes, hipsters, and 1% / The false feminists he’d managed to detect / Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?”

Next, I haven’t gotten into any previous Mac Demarco but was instantly drawn to two songs off his upcoming album, “My Old Man” and “This Old Dog”. It’s hard to pin this to a specific genre, but these songs feel a lot to me like Cat Stevens covering Sublime’s “What I Got” with pinches of elegant synth, like a flavorful seasoning.

Earlier this week, while sifting through old Best Tracks of Pitchfork, I discovered an album I had missed from 2016 by Jenn Wasner, under the solo project Flock of Dimes. Wasner also sings in Wye Oak, which put out one of my favorite albums of 2014, Shriek. This new album If You See Me, Say Yes is very much a spiritual successor to Shriek, but the best analogy I can come up with for the distinctive vibe here is that she’s like an electronic Pocahontas. Her voice has always entranced me with its frontier-like quality, and I like to imagine a flock of dimes, like birds, flying over a river of electric current, the colors of the wind the same as those in Shriek’s Logic of Color” and the sights and sounds along a boat ride with Jenn the subject of this new album’s tracks. The whole album is a delight to listen to on repeat, but start with “Semaphore” and definitely check out the last Wye Oak album as well, if you like her sound.

One more excellent discovery this week, courtesy of All Songs Considered and Pitchfork: Jens Lekman, “An Evening Prayer”, which I simply implore you to listen to.

My full February Mix, as it stands, can be found on Spotify.

On Tuesday I got to see Anthony Doerr give a hilarious and insightful lecture at Stanford as part of the Stanford Storytelling Project. All the Light We Cannot See, which I have previously raved about, is definitely in my top 5 books of all time (which includes The Goldfinch, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Infinite Jest, and… not sure about the last one). I had tried About Grace in anticipation of this lecture and hated it, but his delightful talk restored my faith in him, so I picked up a short story collection, Memory Wall. It is the best short story collection I’ve ever read. I had the opinion that the biggest problem with About Grace was plot, and it appears that his time spent mastering the shorter story in Memory Wall, to stunningly beautiful effect, probably gave him the craft necessary to pull off All the Light, which itself is written in short vignettes of interweaving stories. If you are not an obsessive reader like me, I highly recommend you give Memory Wall a shot as it takes much less time to fall in love with the power of storytelling.

I also made a lot of headway into Steve Pinker’s Blank Slate, which has some really provocative insights on human nature and the brain, like the idea that we are programmed with intuitive notions of mathematics, biology, statistics, etc. that in many ways are literally incorrect, so a great way to think about K-12 education is “rewiring” and “augmenting” our brains to think correctly about the world, as opposed to just filling it with knowledge. In other words, we are filling out students’ leaky minds with furniture instead of fixing the leaks. But before I could finish Blank Slate I had to return it to the library, along with Snow Crash, so I’ll have to comment on those fully once I can get my hands on them again.

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As promised in my last post, here’s a very preliminary mapping of key beliefs in my personal belief system, in an order I would consider to be fundamentally sequential as axioms to agree upon, before any useful debate can be had on specific issues of morality or policy. I imagine this as a series of rooms with doors leading to subsequent rooms. If you were to enter this dungeon and progress through the rooms matching your beliefs, at the end, if you open the “universal well-being” door, you’d find me; and my theory is that we’d be able to agree on nearly every important issue, given a similarly systematic employment of empirical reasoning with a consistent moral calculus. But to get there, I’ll briefly describe each of the stages in the figure below:

belief-system

Relative Truth vs. Absolute Truth

I believe this is the most fundamental axiom on which two people must agree if their worldviews are to be compatible. Sadly, the “correct” answer is less obvious than I thought it would be for our country. Basically, we could label the “relative truth” door “alternative facts”, and if you were to enter it, you’d end up in a hole with the likes of Kellyann Conway, Sean Spicer, and President Trump. And anybody else you’ve ever met who believes that reality can be two things at once. Now I’ll note here that I’m not even talking about honesty vs. dishonesty here. If somebody is lying to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in “relative truth”; they may very well have one belief and are simply manipulating you for some ulterior motive. I find that much less problematic than true disillusionment, which I suspect may have creeped into the Trump administration and devout Republicans, or will inevitably take root like a cancer as their only stalwart against existential crisis. Of course, the already mentally unstable have long since taken the door to relative truth, but you probably would have considered it impossible to align with them anyway. The final key group that may take that door are religious people, especially “moderate” Christians and Muslims, who proceed through life with the burden of cognitive dissonance, simultaneously believing all that the human projects of science and knowledge have uncovered and their sacred texts. I’ll even gladly let true believers pass through the same door with me to absolute truth, to pick our battles in the next room; but if you are comfortable living on a planet that is simultaneously 6,000 and 4.5 billion years old, I am uncomfortable debating literally anything else with you. Finally, so as to be fully inclusive, I’ll throw pseudo-psychologist Jordan B. Peterson through the “relative truth” door as well before closing it (read my previous thoughts on him).

TL;DR / contextualization of this section to what you’re probably currently focused on: I do not believe there is any useful strategy against the Trump administration without first settling the argument on relative vs. absolute truth. So don’t waste your time on anything but actively exposing their dishonesty, if that is in fact what’s happening, or surgically rewiring the mental constructs in them and their supporters.

Faith vs. Reason

Unfortunately, I believe many of my readers and I will go our separate ways from this room (though, as I have indicated with a dotted line, we may meet again later on). Essentially the two doors I have framed here correspond to the following statements: either (1) you believe that absolute truth is determined by a Creator who will grant you paradise in the afterlife if you follow his divine laws, or (2) you accept that there is nothing after you die, that paradise is unattainable, and that all we’ve got to understand reality is the mental faculty in our brains. The labels “faith” and “reason” are oversimplifications of a series of complex steps embedded here, but hopefully what I’m getting at is clear. To enter the “faith” door is to believe in things which cannot be proven, starting with your sacred texts, and extending potentially to anything else. To enter the “reason” door is to live a much more difficult life, in which nothing is certain, nothing is definitively provable, only testable and consistent with observation until proven wrong. As I indicate, the “reason” door leads you quickly down the hall to the principles of empiricism, logic, the scientific method, and some of the foundational scientific theories we have, like Darwinian evolution.

It’s worth mentioning that faith, as manifested in superstitious and religious belief, very likely arose from natural selection as tendencies to over-assume that the rustle in the grass was a deadly predator, as opposed to just the blowing wind. Feed that basic phenotypical behavior through the cultural mechanisms of our early tribal societies, and you get explanations for everything we could not yet understand through tools of science, and over-triggered habits-turned-rituals like sacrifice and sacred texts, which made life simpler to understand, but ultimately held us back in moral and intellectual development for millennia.

In fact, the “virus” of religious belief is so strong that, through deep cultural embeddedness, it continues to afflict a majority of us on this planet. Yes, a made-up, immutable belief system in practice does not negatively affect your well-being and may even be the surest way to survive, but I invite you to seriously consider the utility of faith when it enables humans to reliably commit and justify the most heinous of acts, like suicide bombings and systematic persecution. Of course many immoral acts remain to be addressed in the next room, but to break free of faith is to break free of our most fundamental and vestigial of crutches. And as I have to always qualify, to break free of faith DOES NOT mean you have to abandon the benefits of community and spirituality that many associate with religion. Why must those be tied to faith? Why can’t we, as humans, design institutions and cultures of secularism that can completely replace religion? That possibility awaits through the door of reason.

My last thought here, though this merits a much deeper discussion in the future: the hardest thing about getting somebody to backtrack from the door of faith and willingly walk through the door of reason, in my experience (yes, even personal), is the deep existential depression that can sink in when the securities and promises of eternal paradise with God disappear. To see how powerful faith is, you need look no further than the poor souls who stand at precipice of doubt, a community and eternity of love behind them, and a different kind of eternity of meaninglessness awaiting them in the abyss below. I completely understand how difficult the jump is, and I think atheists can do no better than to be dutiful supporters, pointing out the solid footing shrouded by the mist. That solid ground is the realization that the question “what is the meaning of life?” is in fact part of the problem, that to find satisfaction is to find that the question doesn’t matter, that without “right”, “less wrong” is good enough. If you are struggling with this, please reach out to me and we can talk it out.

For those following along from the political arena: what does this mean in practice? Most obviously, I think separation of church and state is essential, and it pains me to see Trump wants to “destroy the Johnson Amendment”. Next, if you are a liberal and are fighting against conservative values, it’s probably already clear that it’s religious conservatism that’s gotta go first, from textbook Creationists to stem cell research opponents to radical homophobes. But finally, if you are a liberal you must also identify your own faithful convictions, be they religion or simply dogmatic faith in everything that comes out of left-leaning media sites being correct, or every victim being guiltless, or every “freedom” being tolerable. Only then should you confidently walk through the other door, and commit to the only dogma left: faith in reason.

Local Well-Being vs. Universal Well-Being

The long journey through the last two rooms have finally led to the actual start of moral values. Your choice of faith or reason simply provided you with the tools (easy or hard) to discern right vs. wrong, but in this room, you now have to choose your framework of valuation. There is a dotted line from the “faith” door to this room, because, depending on what religious beliefs you subscribe to, you are in fact still choosing between one of these doors. Probably, if you are religious, whether you’d like to admit it or not, you’re going to pick the “local well-being” door, because your essential goal as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim is to reach eternal paradise and a personal relationship with your God (other faiths like Buddhism are intriguing exceptions to this generalization, proving that religions can map onto a variety of value systems, some great by my standards, but are problematic ultimately because they are unaccountable to reality). Even if you’d like to think that your time on Earth is meant to bring as many nonbelievers with you to Heaven, and that that constitutes a concern for the well-being of others, I invite you to seriously consider the following paradox: in situation (1), you and your loved one both get to Heaven, and in situation (2), only you get to Heaven; in either case, your religion forces you to accept that you still have achieved eternal, unimprovable happiness with God, so whether or not your loved one made it with you will simply cease to matter once you pass through those Pearly Gates (please enlighten me if you are religious and have a defense against this seeming hypocrisy).

So the alternative door here is what I call “universal well-being”, and unfortunately, like “reason”, it is a difficult path fraught with philosophical problems, but it is the door I believe all of humanity must willingly enter if we are to reach anything like “heaven” in the only reality we’ve got. By universal well-being, I simply mean that you commit to the subjective opinion that every conscious being has value proportional to their level of consciousness. Again, I have skipped a few intermediate steps here which someday I can expand upon, but basically back in that hallway with “empiricism” and “Darwinism”, you would also have to accept that consciousness exists, and that conscious beings are capable of suffering, and that not-suffering is better than suffering, and that there is some kind of absolute truth when it comes to measuring a global amount of suffering, even if we don’t currently (or may never) have the tools to definitively measure it. Then you can view the doors of local and universal well-being sort of as doors of empathy and compassion, where empathy is a valuation of individual humans you directly encounter, like a point source of caring that dissipates as you move away from yourself, and compassion is a rational and consistent valuation of suffering as it occurs, no matter how far from you. If this distinction is new and alarming to you, I invite you to read Paul Bloom’s work “against empathy”, but as a simple example, consider that a single violent crime in your immediate community reliably matters to you more than hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering on the other side of the world. This, like superstitious belief, is simply a vestige from our simpler days as early humans in small groups, where compassion simply was not necessary as a concept. Now, we have to activate the better angels of our “nature” through unnatural tools of statistical reasoning; that is the only way to donate ethically (aka effective altruism), if you donate at all. Anyway, if this all tracks with you, then, like me, you either believe or aspire to believe that all human beings are truly created equal, and that moral calculations are generally best made on the basis of body count (whether or not the calculus is easy is another matter). Add on the natural corollary that other conscious beings, like cows and chickens and maybe extraterrestrial life, are just as worthy of our moral concern if they are conscious, and you are ready to walk through this door, behind which I’d be waiting to greet you, highly confident that we share the same values.

Final notes, before I run to catch my train. First, as I have drawn the dotted line, it’s quite possible that faith can get you to believe in “universal well-being”, meaning we are mostly compatible in our beliefs, but the problem that follows is that we won’t be able to analyze and interpret real-life issues like gun control, abortion, climate change, etc. without a similar competency around empirical reasoning. Second, for those who have fully committed to absolute truth, reason, empiricism, and Darwinism, and finally universal well-being (which, I’ll add briefly but can explore more deeply in the future, is a kind of defiance of our selfish genes which makes us a post-Darwinian species and, I believe, is necessary for us to prevent our own extinction and become an interstellar species), we have only just begun the real journey of bettering our society, discovering our true beliefs on political and policy issues, and fighting intellectual dishonesty.

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After a weekend back home in Los Angeles celebrating Chinese New Year, skiing, and spending time with my mom, on my phone at LAX, I found myself drowned (yet again) in the torrent of history with news of the immigration ban, protests at airports, apparent protests by mobility services of protests at airports, and on and on. Just over a week into the Trump presidency, I found myself scrambling (yet again) to achieve personal moral clarity in a sea of liberal and conservative righteousness, and tonight, a day later, mulling over these topics with two close friends over dinner and tea, I reaffirmed (yet again) the importance of my “intellectual honesty” project as the most effective path forward (at least more impactful than protesting at an airport). And essentially I am holding myself (yet again) to the goal of making this vague project concept explicit as soon as possible, for me and for everyone I interact with.

So despite being in the middle of a busy workweek, I will do my best to summarize what I mean by an “intellectual honesty” project, and hopefully get constructive feedback to help refine these ideas into a future formal work.

We live in human societies that have reached a level of complexity, relative to the dawn of humanity, such that we require increasingly sophisticated tools to support and sustain our collective well-being. Those tools range from technological systems (like energy and mobility) to knowledge systems (like language and science) to economic and political systems (like capitalism and governance). Of the last category, governance, arguably the most important tool we’ve invented is policy, aka rules of law, which theoretically are institutionalizations of good ideas. But given that there is always some amount of subjectivity in how we evaluate what a “good idea” is (i.e. we don’t agree on our value systems, our value systems may change over time), then we have a supplementary tool called politics which allows us to decide who creates policy. In our representative democracy, our political disagreements boil down to differences in those value systems.

I believe our value systems, aka our systems of evaluating right and wrong, have two distinct components. One is our fundamental subjective goals, aka the values themselves. The other is our methodology of interpreting objective information, aka analyzing our reality in relation to those values. Both components feature a variety of possible outcomes. For example, we can have different values across various spectra, like selfishness vs. selflessness, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. But we can also employ very different means of understanding our reality, from righteous dogma to painstaking empiricism and reason.

Given the framework described above, I would evaluate our current political climate in the following way. It is clear that the “left” and “right” have different centers of gravity on the spectra mentioned above, but it is less clear that both the “left” and “right” have similar vulnerability and susceptibility to dogmatic and biased thinking over reason. Both Democrats and Republicans are equally capable of distorting facts, intentionally and unintentionally. One key example of flawed reasoning is confirmation bias, aka tribalism, which we inherited from our early humanity and contributes to the increasing polarization and distortion of our modern politics.

I find myself in a purgatory of sorts, in which my greatest concern is for the degradation of empirical reasoning, which I believe is the best method humans have to navigate reality. To this end, I am critical of righteousness and poor heuristics on both sides of the political spectrum, and would like to reel the majority of people back to a more nuanced and critical employment of reason which should tend to lead to a convergence on centrist and moderate policies. This is the heart of my conception of “intellectual honesty” and is fundamental apolitical. But at the same time, my personal value system, though not fully realized, is based on a subjective goal of “maximizing universal well-being”, which is ideologically left of center. As a result, my essential worldview is liberal, but my individual policy views may be liberal or conservative on a case-by-case basis, and my typical reaction to an immediate political issue is, more often than not: “Need more information”. In other words, if you and I both identify as liberals, we may be comrades in the overall war but fighting very different battles on the ground.

I’ve love to hear your thoughts and criticisms of this first passage. Later this week: a breakdown of my personal value system, conceptualized as a journey through a dungeon of chambers and keys.

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Here’s the music I’ve been listening to on repeat in the first month of 2017:

  • Nicolas Jaar – History Lesson
  • Run the Jewels – Call Ticketron
  • Typhoon – Common Sentiments
  • Typhoon – Post Script
  • The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
  • The Flaming Lips – How??
  • The Flaming Lips – Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
  • The Flaming Lips – Nigdy Nie (Never No)
  • The Flaming Lips – The Castle
  • The xx – Say Something Loving
  • The xx – Replica
  • The xx – On Hold
  • The xx – I Dare You
  • Foxygen – On Lankershim
  • Real Estate – Darling

Nicolas Jaar and Run the Jewels were rollovers from December 2016. “History Lesson” is an incredible production, mixing an oldies croon with surprising and irregularly paced ‘whoop’ sounds that never stop being interesting. I haven’t gotten very deeply into RTJ3 yet but the early standout was “Call Ticketron” that just exudes braggadocio and fun and features an amazing verse from Killer Mike near the end (Verse 5 on Genius).

One of my favorite songs from the summer of 2011 was Typhoon’s “CPR / Claws Pt. 2”, and I got to see Kevin Morton do a solo set at the Swedish American Hall with Dylan the first week of the year. Kevin had incredible performance skills and seemed to be lost in his own music, often finishing a song and then setting his fingers for a new chord as if ready to start the next song on his mind, before realizing he was on stage and nodding to the crowd for applause. He played a bunch of newer songs that I hadn’t really followed but ended up listening to throughout the month, particularly “Common Sentiments” and “Post Script”, and as I hoped, finished off his set with “CPR / Claws Pt. 2”.

I’ve already written about the two big albums that came out this month, Oczy Mlody and I See You. The xx has definitely grown on me, especially the four songs I listed above. “Replica” is without a doubt my favorite song they’ve ever done (beating out “VCR”); in fact, like “On Hold” it owes a lot of its feeling to Jamie xx who played with a similar oriental and steel drum sounds in In Colour. The Flaming Lips hasn’t lost its wonder for me, and next month I’ll probably just continue on listening to the other half of the album (particularly “One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches to Kill”).

I’m seeing Foxygen live in April, and was excited to hear their album Hang; I didn’t end up liking most of it (more in the vein of Queen, David Bowie, Billy Joel, etc.), but “On Lankershim” shows off a really elegant Americana verse, chorus, and bridge without straying into the incomprehensible. And finally, Real Estate, which released one of my favorite albums of 2014, Atlas, announced a new album and released a single, “Darling”, which has a beautifully odd time signature play that is best described as “tickly”. I’m looking forward to the full album in March.

What other music stood out this month? I’d love to hear!

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