Who put the ‘mental’ in environmentalism?

This is how Wikipedia shows the extent of the red squirrel:

Notice how the map shows that as a species the red squirrel is losing its grip on the eastern half of Britain and the southern “heel” of Italy. That is because in those places the red squirrel’s competitor — the notorious grey squirrel — is taking its place. That sort of thing happens a lot in the living world.

Now take a look at how Wikipedia shows the extent of the grey squirrel:

Notice how the grey squirrel does not appear to have gained a toehold in Europe at all. There is a remarkable reason for that. Environmentalists treat the living world as having a design, in other words, they think there is a “way things were meant to be”. According to the Master Plan, the grey squirrel in Europe is not part of the “way things were meant to be” because it is a mere “introduced species”. It is not ordained that the grey squirrel be in Europe. And for that quasi-theological reason it doesn’t make it onto the map.

Let us pass over the fact that every single species everywhere was at one time an “introduced species”. Let us pass over the fact that grey squirrels are all over the place in the UK, such as in parks in Central London. Since environmentalists do not consider the grey squirrel’s presence in Europe a part of The Legitimate Plan for The World, it is a mere artificiality, a temporary aberration, something wrong and even hateful – whose artificiality, temporariness (etc.) preclude acknowledging it on the map.

So the map shows how things were meant to be rather than how things actually are. This strikes me as quite disturbed, because reality and wishful thinking have “got all mixed up”. It is a bit like entertaining the idea of an imaginary friend — or an imaginary enemy. The vitriolic expressions of hatred routinely heaped upon the innocent, charming and intelligent grey squirrel strike me not just as slightly psychotic, but frankly as paranoid psychotic.

Haters of the grey squirrel – of which there seem to be many – often try to re-establish a link with reality by talking about the cruelty, indifference or injustice of grey squirrels, which steal eggs and even fledglings from nests. But they don’t talk about the fact that red squirrels do exactly the same. That’s just what squirrels do, although it is not Disney’s version of what squirrels do.

It is a strangely disturbed double standard that deems grey squirrels to be an abomination upon the face of the Earth, whereas red squirrels are perfectly fine, when both species of squirrels behave in much the same way. As indeed do we humans – we steal eggs and eat young birds (in our own case, they are mostly chickens).

Environmentalists are not the only ones whose paranoid psychosis re-draws maps and lets “what is ordained by God” overrule reality. Schools in many Arab countries “redact” the image of “the Zionist entity” in their atlases. Not only can it not be mentioned by name, it cannot be seen by the eyes of children, although of course an Israel-shaped blob of black ink remains up at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Presumably, it never occurs to children to point at the big black blob in their atlases and ask “er… What’s that?”

What can’t science tell us?

Science says absolutely nothing about (A) how valuable or desirable a goal is, or (B) how much anything ought to be believed. These are both absolutely central to human life, as rational decision-making depends on them. In other words, science on its own says nothing about “risk” in the proper sense of the word (i.e. the sense that takes account of desirability of goals and can thus guide decisions) nor of “probability” in the traditional sense of the word (i.e. the sense of how much a claim deserves to be believed, which can thus guide decisions).

We live in an age of scientism and pseudo-science – an age of blind worship of anything that looks vaguely “rigorous in a scientific way” (by containing lots of numbers, symbols, graphs, arcane terminology, use of computer models, etc.) and an age that is grossly over-populated by scientific imposters. Both are the product of widespread scientific illiteracy and a petulant, petty-minded hostility to religious belief.

Hardly a day passes when we do not hear of supposedly scientific “assessments of risk” – where these assessments just assume that what we are at risk of is extremely undesirable. But obviously, danger must be measured not just in terms of how likely an undesirable outcome may be, but of how undesirable it is, neither of which science can tell us. (For example, cancer poses a greater danger than the common cold not because it is more likely but because it is a worse disease, i.e. one its sufferers hate having more.) Most of these supposedly “scientific” assessments of risk are the product of a flat-footed religious/biblical assumption that “the design of the world must not be disrupted”. Furthermore, the assessment of “how likely” an outcome may be is usually inspired by a conceptual error: that of supposing relative frequency is the same thing as credibility. (It is most obvious that these are different things when we consider unique events such as the current economic crisis or global warming.)

To their credit, two of the greatest philosophers of recent times (Wittgenstein and Quine) warned of the twin dangers of scientism and pseudo-science. Yet their warnings have largely gone unheeded, especially among people whose knowledge of science amounts to little more than hostility to belief in God (combined with susceptibility to most of the other religious habits of thought that they have signally failed to slough off).

Perhaps one of the dreariest and commonest misconceptions about science among the scientifically illiterate is the idea that science reveals truths that we can be very confident of. Five minutes or less reflecting on the history or methodology of science should be enough to dispel that!

Are you infallible?

A large majority of drivers think they’re “better than average”. But the arithmetic doesn’t allow it — at most half of drivers can be better than average. So quite a lot of drivers are fooling themselves. How can this be? How is it that so many drivers have such an unrealistic view of their own abilities?

I think it’s because driving is a rather adversarial activity, in which we expend quite a bit of effort justifying our own actions and decisions, trying to avoid blame at the same time as apportioning it to others. In telling a coherent story in which we are not ourselves to blame, we tend to “suspend disbelief”, and come to believe our own self-justification.

We really need to “take a reality check”. If most of us have to take evasive action or honk at other drivers, then most of us make other drivers take evasive action or honk at us.

Of course, some drivers really are better than others. I’d hazard a guess that the best drivers are not those who disguise their own failings through self-justification, but those who actively try to uncover their own failings in order to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

Political discussion is another adversarial activity. As with driving, a large majority think their own judgement is better than the judgement of others, and for much the same reasons. But again, there is usually no good reason to think one’s own judgement is better than the judgement of others. Again, we need to take a reality check. And yet again, the ones who really do have the best judgement are probably those who are actively trying to uncover their own failings rather than covering them up or disguising them.

I think remarkably few people actually do try to uncover the failings in their own political or moral judgement. The business of justifying one’s own opinions is largely a matter of deliberately overlooking the failings — the misconceptions, historical inaccuracies, prejudices, and so on — to which we are all subject. By turning a blind eye to our own failings, we lose sight of the possibility that we may be mistaken. And then when we disagree with others, we tend to explain the disagreement in terms of our own integrity versus their lack of integrity. Toleration comes to look like a sign of weakness — a vice rather than a virtue. And then we feel justified in overruling the opinions of others by taking action on their behalf or by silencing them. As JS Mill recognized, that amounts to a claim of infallibility.

In his famous 1859 essay On Liberty, Mill presented three arguments for freedom of thought and discussion. The first of them amounts to the claim that silencing other opinions is an assumption of infallibility. It is such a simple argument, backed up by such a penetrating insight into human nature, that I reproduce it here in full:

[T]he opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.

Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgement, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.

Let us take precautions against our own fallibility! — Imagine what the world would be like if drivers routinely commandeered other drivers’ cars and justified doing so on the grounds that “I’m a better driver than you”. Oh wait — that’s what the world of non-democratic politics is like already, isn’t it?

Activists are missionaries

You visit the theatre. The play is not to your liking. Do you:

(A) Leave during the interval, muttering “what a terrible play!”

(B) Arrange for the play to be taken off the theatre circuit, for the cast to lose their jobs, and so on.

(C) Withhold judgement, because you are not a playwright – “sure wouldn’t that sort of judgement be best left to the experts, what would I know?”

I submit that the only reasonable option is something like A.

If you choose B, you suppose not only that your judgement is better than the judgement of others, but also that you have the authority to make decisions on behalf of others.

Choosing C is a mirror-image of that: you suppose that there are other people whose judgement is not just better than that of ordinary people like you, but they have the authority to judge on their – i.e. your – behalf.

Although superficially B and C look like mirror-images, they commit the same error – a type of informal fallacy called “appeal to authority”. In one case it is your own supposed authority. In the other case it is the supposed authority of an elite. I will call this sort of approach the “bishop-missionary position”, to remind us of where this thoroughly hierarchical and catholic idea comes from. The “bishops” belong to an elite that ordinary folk are expected to look up to, an elite whose opinions are supposed to count for more than ordinary folk’s opinions. “Missionaries” do not embrace the pomp of bishops, but they still expect to be looked up to, because they imagine their own opinions count for more than those of lesser folk – i.e. folk even lesser than ordinary folk. Bishops and missionaries are similar in their contempt for and willingness to override the opinions and wishes of others, but they differ in that bishops tend to stay put and expect ordinary folk to consult them, while missionaries tend to go forth to do their good works.

Do you agree with me that it would be wrong to judge a play in the manner of B or C above? If so, why does nearly everyone judge their own moral opinions in the manner of B, and scientific opinions in the manner of C?

Religion explained

Religion is a funny thing. It presents special problems to people (like me) who think religious beliefs are mostly false, because religion seems to be a human universal. It exists in all human societies, past and present. How can this be, given that false beliefs are usually a hindrance to those who have them? As a rule, false beliefs tend not to promote the proliferation of the believer’s genes or culture. Is religious belief an exception to that rule?

I want to sketch an explanation that turns the usual understanding of religion on its head. The usual understanding assumes that religious beliefs inspire religious behaviour. In other words, it assumes that our ideas about “how the world is arranged” cause and hence explain rituals, ceremonies and religious “observances” of various kinds. For example, the belief that God is omnipotent gives people a reason to pray, and that explains why religious believers pray. Note the pattern there: belief first, behaviour second. I want to suggest the very opposite is true: that religious behaviour is selected for because it serves a real biological function, and that religious belief is a sort of after-the-fact rationalization of that behaviour. Instead of the beliefs explaining the behaviour, the behaviour explains the beliefs. For example, acts of prayer tend to promote belief in an omnipotent God rather than vice versa.

Looked at that way, religious beliefs are not an exception to the rule above, but are instead a mere side effect of something else — something that really does confer a biological advantage. There is much more to religion than belief, and religious beliefs are highly “theoretical”: they tend occupy the “inner” recesses of our minds, emerging in behaviour only rarely, such as when we discuss theology (if ever). Nor do many of us have first-hand “religious experiences” by observing miracles or supernatural phenomena. So I would argue that religious beliefs survive despite being mostly false, because selective pressures do not bear on them very directly — not as directly as, for example, beliefs about the current location of the furniture in the room. When that sort of belief is false, it leads to injury: I bruise my shins on the coffee table every morning when walking across the room to let the dog out.

I submit that religious behaviour promotes social cohesion in a special way. It works within groups (but not between groups) by providing a framework for expressions of sincerity. This is how rituals work in the social lives of other animals, such as in the courtship displays of monogamous birds. Ritual has a much greater importance for our own species, because ours is easily the most cooperative species on Earth. Religions also give their adherents distinctive ways of understanding right and wrong, so that co-religionists tend to agree on moral questions. All of which probably oils the wheels of reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism is the biological version of “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” between unrelated individuals. It requires trust and familiarity, but cannot depend on shared genes as a guarantee of good faith. The next best alternative is to check that “we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet”, in the present context almost literally.

If religion serves social functions of the above sort, then it is bound to involve “costly signalling”. This is an important idea that has entered mainstream biology in recent decades. To advertise something of value such as good genes or good faith, the most reliable indicators are those that cannot be imitated; for that, they have to cost an honest communicator something that dishonest communicators cannot afford. The classic examples involve sexual ornamentation such as the peacock’s tail. The tail handicaps its owner, but it must if it is to send a convincing signal that honestly advertises his genetic worth. The tail is not long and unwieldy despite but rather because it’s an obvious danger to its owner’s life. Costly signals have to handicap the signaller.

This sort of costly “handicapping” signal seems quite common in human social life. Parents of engaged couples throw wedding parties of enormous expense to indicate the sincerity of their commitment to the new union. Men drive cars that invite comments such as “that must’ve set you back a bit!” — By being “set back a bit” yet avoiding disaster, they advertise their solvency. And in both sexes, conspicuous self-denial can reach the level of self-destruction and beyond (as in suicide bombers).

In these cases of handicapping, hardships are not imposed by the environment. They are self-imposed in more or less arbitrary fashion by the signallers themselves. I deliberately choose the words ‘arbitrary’ and ‘fashion’ here. The peacock’s tail feathers happen to have blue “eye” features, but purple stripes would have done just as well, had that fashion taken hold, and as long as they were equally hard to arrange.

If religious observances serve the social functions described above, it wouldn’t matter much what they involve as long as they are demanding enough — by calling for a costly fastidiousness, or self-harming for example. Flagellation is as good as fasting — and more convenient if you’re short on time.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the differences between my approach here and that of mainstream atheism, which tends to see religion as ridiculous, as a pathological waste of time, or as something we would be better off without. But I see it as arbitrary; and if it is time-consuming, it has to be to serve its social purpose. We can’t really hope to get rid of it, because our sociality is indispensable, apart from a few individuals here and there. As Burke remarked, “man is by his constitution a religious animal.” The few who really succeed in giving it up have to relinquish their own constitution a bit.

Despite the biological requirement of some such framework for ritual observances, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find a reasonably wide range of different frameworks, because social cohesion within a group often requires friction between such groups, especially if they have competing interests as groups. A given set of observances indicate specific commitment to this group, and not that group.

That seems to be what we find when we look around the world at different peoples, especially those whose interests conflict. Over the course of history, where group interests begin to conflict, their religions begin to diverge. For example, most of the population of the US is descended from people drawn from a smallish range of religions. If we ignore the “social cohesion” aspect of religion, we would expect to find a similar homogeneity of religious practices in the present-day US. But what we find in fact is that new religions and cults spring up as groups and their interests diverge — notably in newly-acquired territories such as Utah and California. It’s as if social cohesion within groups is promoted where differences are created between groups.

So far, I have focused on religious behaviour. But what of religious belief? Mainstream atheism tends to see religious belief as one of the “craziest” aspects of religion, the origin and cause of all the “pointless” ritualistic behaviour. But look at it from the other direction: that sort of behaviour only seems pointless from a traditional perspective that overlooks handicapping. Once we take account of handicapping, the behaviour may be arbitrary and guided by fashion, but it isn’t pointless at all. I suggest that the beliefs “come later” as the product of rationalization, and are in fact the “least crazy” aspect of the whole operation, even though most of them are false.

Recent philosophers in the tradition of American pragmatism such as Daniel Dennett and Donald Davidson have argued that the content of beliefs (and other mental states) is a matter of interpretation guided by a “principle of charity”. (Anything that has “meaning” such as mental states or language depends on interpretation like that.) An agent’s beliefs as a whole have to “make as much sense as possible” by meshing with each other, with the agent’s behaviour, and with the way the world is. That determines what they are “about”. It seems to me that ritualistic activities and the beliefs that rationalise them are indeed woven into a coherent whole like that. But this coherence of beliefs has a cost — what they gain by meshing smoothly with each other they lose in clarity, concreteness, testability, and truth. Thus a typical religious belief is likely to be “mystical”, abstract, hard to check, and false.

It is hardly surprising that there are differences between the beliefs of different religions. But they have quite a lot in common too. I would argue that they converge mostly as a result of that principle of charity, which in effect insists that they be consistent with shared human nature and with our most widely-held assumptions.

Let’s look at an example. I mentioned above that religious beliefs were highly “theoretical”. They have to be, because otherwise they would be too strongly selected against. So they exist as a hotchpotch of commitments to such things as “creation” stories about the origins of the world and of humans, to “legalistic” rules and regulations, to “cautionary” accounts of punishments and rewards, to vaguely “spiritual” ideas about the nature of the person. Consider the last of these.

We humans are unique in our use of language and in the complexity of our thoughts. When combined, these human abilities give rise to something even stranger — our use of language to describe the contents of our thoughts. This special sort of language is remarkable for the “roundabout” way it describes its subject matter. For example, when we describe an experience we’re having — an experience of red, say — we use a word whose primary purpose is not to characterise experiences but common public objects such as tomatoes and poppies. Children first learn to use the word ‘red’ to describe the colour of that sort of public object, and only later co-opt the very same word to describe the nature of their own “internal” experiences, experiences of a sort that normally occur when they look at those public objects. That is, they describe the state of their brains by using a word that originally applied to the quality of light reflected off fruit and flowers. Something similar applies to the content of beliefs (and desires, hopes, fears, etc.). We describe the way we believe things are arranged in the world by using an “embedded sentence” that describes how things would be arranged if the belief were true. For example, I might describe my belief that there is someone on the roof by uttering the sentence ‘I think there’s someone on the roof.’ That description of my mental state contains the embedded sentence ‘Someone is on the roof’, which on its own describes a state of affairs in the world rather than a mental state in my head.

To make a long story short, the language we use to describe our internal mental representations of the world “mirrors” the language we use to describe the real external world. If we’re not careful, this apparent “mirroring” can weave a sort of spell, a spell that tricks us into assuming that our ideas are ghostly versions of the physical things they are ideas of. We assume these “ghostly” entities must inhabit a “spiritual” realm, so now we think our minds are themselves “ghostly”, and maybe even entirely separated from the physical world. This is just the sort of “conjuring trick” played by language that prompted Wittgenstein to characterise philosophy as a “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”. As it happens, practically the entire population of the world has fallen for this trick, and subsequently most of us understand minds as non-material “ghosts”, which need not always stay inside the “machines” of their hosts’ physical bodies.

Now along comes religion, gravitating as it always does towards the theoretical and the arcane. It seizes on this almost universal “ghost” idea, and develops it by weaving a mythology around it. Practically all religions have developed the idea, each in its own distinctive way, of course, as befits any framework whose details are partially determined by the requirement that it be different from other frameworks.

This interplay of convergence and divergence is not all that unusual. We can see something like it in the development of computer software. Windows has its “Explorer” and Mac OS X has its “Finder”: their main purpose is similar, but their names and finer details differ, not by accident but by design. Or again, image editing software such as Gimp and Inkscape deliberately differ from Photoshop and Illustrator to avoid breaching copyright law.

I mentioned above that mainstream atheists see religious belief as pathological. But I would agree with Burke that it’s “natural” for humans. It’s therefore very hard to shake off. It may be easy to dismiss the idiosyncrasies of specific religious beliefs, because it’s pretty clear that they are more or less arbitrary products of fashion and random divergence. But where religious beliefs converge, as almost all do on the idea that the mind is “spiritual” or “ghostlike”, they reflect nearly universal human assumptions.

Another nearly universal assumption is the idea that the living world is filled with precariously balanced “ecosystems”, which is really belief in design or “a way things were meant to be”. Even people who explicitly reject design in nature treat “ecosystems” with a misplaced reverence. Again, we see man’s religious constitution at work.

But perhaps the most ubiquitous and unshakable aspect of our religious constitution can be found in our epistemic habits. Most of the time, most of our beliefs are acquired through adoption from others — we take beliefs on because we want to fit in with a group whose members have those beliefs already. The prevalence of that habit throughout human life — and disgustingly to me it seems to be everywhere — is the surest evidence that social cohesion plays an overwhelming role in how we think and act. It seems to me that philosophers must work hard to lose that habit, at least as far as our human nature will let us.