Friday, June 22, 2012

Evolution of the Sacred Experience

Sosis and Bressler posit that religious behaviors and institutions evolve to solve coordination problems. But the advantages of religion and sacredness need not accrue to the group at the expense of the individual. Shamanic healing (induction of mental states that promote well-being by social hypnosis) exemplifies how a religious technology/institution might confer an adaptive advantage on participating individuals:
McClenon argues that hominins developed more complex rituals that produced therapeutic altered states of consciousness. He claims, citing Winkelman, that shamanic healing "was present in all regions of the world at some time in their hunting and gathering past." According to McClenon, those who were most suggestible in our evolutionary past would have benefited most from shamanic healing ceremonies, resulting in lower morbidity and mortality rates. Accepting the efficacy of shamanistic healing would have been particularly valuable to birthing mothers, and thus would have directly contributed to reproductive success. McClenon concludes that suggestibility and susceptibility to hypnosis confer adaptive advantages on those who possess these traits. [Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine.]

In fact, childbirth customs, medicine, magic, magic to sustain life, magic to increase life, false beliefs, belief in supernatural/religion, mood- or consciousness-altering techniques and/or substances, and healing the sick (or attempting to) are each found in every human society ever studied.

The effect of this kind of social hypnosis is so strong, its incidents so immediately felt, that it was studied in an earlier era of science as "animal magnetism."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sacredness As Monster: Tinkerbell Ethics Part II

Cultural Elements Evolve

Culture is an evolved thing. Cultures as a whole, as well as individual elements of culture, survive through time if they are successful at getting living organisms to reproduce them. Cultures, like viruses, may get away with harming the organisms they depend on for reproduction, but they will die out if they kill off their hosts too quickly.

Cultures are different from biological viruses in that humans depend on culture for survival; in that, cultures resemble gut bacteria. If you depend on an organism's survival for your own survival and reproduction, you may benefit from providing a survival benefit to the host organism.

Maritime technology is an example of an evolved cultural element that provides a survival benefit. Many groups have developed seagoing technologies, from canoes to frigates to aircraft carriers. Anchoring technology, for instance, exists in many forms, and the forms share many elements, as if products of convergent evolution. Anchoring technologies that didn't broadly work within the cultural and biological limits of humans have been tried countless times throughout human history, but were not reproduced. The technologies and cultural elements we see today, like the organisms we see today, are only the ones that were effective at surviving and reproducing.

A striking example of the process of the evolution of cultural artifacts is provided by Daniel VanArsdale in his analysis of the evolution of paper chain letters. Chain letters reproduce by convincing humans to make copies of them; those with certain features (such as the "It work" postscript) are more successful at this, and those are the ones that are copied and survive.

Finally, agriculture is an example of a broad category of cultural elements that are reproduced because they increase the survival and (especially) reproduction of the host organism; unfortunately, this increase has come at a cost to the well-being of the host organism.

Sacredness is an Element of Culture

Structures of sacred ideas (including, but not limited to, religions) evolve, survive, and reproduce themselves using humans. Humans appear to exhibit neural adaptations for processing sacredness; however, the sacredness structures themselves are not hard-wired, but vary between cultures. It is only our capacity for thinking in terms of the sacred that does not vary.

Sacredness - cognition in terms of bright-line rules instead of utilitarian analysis - can be a powerful solution to complex coordination problems. Sacredness structures often allow the sacred being to be a proxy for the group. Instead of deciding in each case whether to act in one's own or the group's interest, sacredness causes individuals to always follow sacred rules, generally benefiting the group over the individual. Those who can signal a strong connection to the sacred also signal that they are excellent cooperation partners. A group of sacredness-perceiving organisms can overcome any coordination problem addressed by sacredness rules. Sacredness structures, like consciousness itself, function as interfaces between organisms and each other and between organisms and the world.

Sacredness structures vary, but are not arbitrary: to be successful, a sacredness structure must be adapted to human physiology and cognition and must promote survival and reproduction of the host organism. A sacredness structure (such as a religion or government) will survive and reproduce best if it encourages the use of technologies that promote its sacredness, and if it creates a plausibility structure around itself. Technologies that promote the experience of sacredness include cathedral building, drugs such as ayahuasca, the induction of glossolalia and other forms of hypnosis, snake handling, group singing, and group dancing. Elements of plausibility structures include marriage solemnization (once the province of religion, and now increasingly the province of government) and the treatment of the sick (ditto). Stories, including foundational cultural legends, play a role in maintaining the sacredness structure: these narratives, as folklorist Linda Degh puts it, "deny the right of disbelief or doubt," "express majority opinion," and "are safeguarded by moral taboos from negation and, what is more, from deviation" (from "Tape-Recording Miracles for Everyday Living," in American Folklore and the Mass Media, Indiana University Press, 1994). In this manner, sacredness is maintained through communal reinforcement.

An important feature of sacredness structures is that they present themselves to the affected organism as objectively true. Two organisms subscribing to two incommensurate sacredness structures cannot both be right; however, they both subjectively perceive themselves as unquestionably right. Sacred thinking protects this feeling of unquestionable rightness with such cognitive tricks as the backfire effect (strengthening one's worldview in the face of conflicting evidence) and confirmation bias (the failure to meaningfully incorporate information that conflicts with one's worldview).

Sacredness structures are not just about beliefs. Sacredness structures frequently require host organisms to maintain inconsistent beliefs; as long as effective strategies exist to deal with the inconsistency (such as faith, mystery, or taboo), inconsistency is not fatal to a sacredness structure, and may even be a strength.

The Sacredness Monster

Shouldn't some things be sacred? It is at least theoretically possible that it is welfare-maximizing to carve out a space of the universe and impose sacredness rules instead; special cases of deontological ethics may "win" from a consequentialist perspective.

But can that monster be controlled?

Removing a domain from consequentialist analysis may have unintended effects. Sacredness is perverse. Once a sacred domain is established, moral licensing may allow people to impose harm on others in violation of the supposedly sacred taboo if they convince themselves they are basically consonant with the sacred rules; those able to convince themselves that they're not racist people are more likely to act in a racist manner, for instance (race being a major part of the sacredness structure of our society). In many cases, expression of the sacredness itself may promote the harm that the sacredness, in a utilitarian framework, is designed to protect against; for instance, expressing that child sexual abusers are "monsters" or that a parent would "kill anyone who did that" is actually likely to cause a child to avoid reporting sexual abuse. Talking about sacred subjects is conflated with committing atrocities, to the detriment of all. Considering all of these together, the most insidious aspect is that once a domain achieves sacred status, the very discussion of its effects in utilitarian terms is tabooed.

Sacredness structures are powerful things that distort the utilitarian moral landscape and warp space around them. As Jonathan Haidt puts it, a ring of motivated ignorance surrounds the sacred.

Sacredness structures, like chain letters or agriculture, may promote human welfare or not, but they invariably promote themselves. Indeed, individuals as well as cultures may have reasons for maintaining sacredness that are not at all related to promoting human flourishing.

Sacredness is Tacit

What sacredness is for, then - its function - is to regulate, motivate, and coordinate behavior among the host organisms. Awareness of the function of sacredness may spoil the effect, at least on the same level of awareness. So sacredness must remain tacit. There are good reasons to hide what's going on with the tool of human hypocrisy, especially in the modern world where multiple sacredness structures compete.

For how can sacredness structures compete overtly? Competition on consequentialist grounds violates the very sacredness of the structures. Sacredness structures present to the participating organism as objectively true; competing sacredness structures present as "just wrong," limiting the cognition that can be done.

The sacredness of the equality of races and genders is a particularly fascinating example. In past societies, host organisms got feelings of status and belonging from maintaining systems of strict gender role divisions and of racial separation or castes. (And let me be clear: fuck that.) Our present Western liberal society has attempted to replace those past, ugly (to us) sacrednesses with the sacredness of racial and gender equality and (somewhat incoherently) rape as a special violation of female sacredness. These function almost as meta-sacredness: making sacred a particular kind of "non-compete clause," imposing a taboo on particular methods of competition between groups and sacredness structures. Again, this might well be welfare-maximizing - but there's no way to analyze that without violating the inherent taboos. Frequently, as in the examples above, the taboos themselves seem to promote the harms they seek to vilify.


Sacredness structures, then, are solutions to coordination problems rather than objective truths. They present themselves, however, as objectively true - as values in and of themselves, rather than as tools to promote human values.

Deontological ethics and other forms of sacredness ask us to clap our hands to save Tinkerbell. If we can only believe in the untrue, we can make it true-ish! But at the same time, we are asked to close our eyes to what is really true.

It may be better for the individual to believe in sacredness structures. It may be better to live in ignorance. It may be better for a cow to walk willingly to slaughter, believing she is to be fed.

But we don't call that consent.

See also: Tinkerbell Ethics Part I

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Curiosity of Reasoning

In the domain of parenting, a truly hard decision is one that is a trade-off between serious, potentially damaging consequences. A truly hard decision cannot be passed off to the child, because the child is too young (or disabled) to give meaningful input. The parents must decide for the child, and in doing so must risk (or actively impose) severe harm.

Some of the hard decisions are widely discussed; children in distress make good news articles, and everyone likes to criticize other people's parenting decisions. Some hard decisions are obscure. Here are a few, by way of illustration:

  • Autism: how should it be treated? Should it be treated? Are the deficits associated with autism outweighed by the benefits? Are the harms of treatment made up for by the benefits? This problem is even more difficult if you think about it not from your own likely scientifically savvy perspective, but from the perspective of an ordinary, scientifically illiterate parent. I am pretty hard on parents, but I maintain that it is almost certainly not sadism that motivates parents to do things like give their autistic children bleach enemas to try to cure them. It is, rather, misplaced hope and poor decision making - which highlights the importance of good decision making, and the seriousness of the decision and its consequences.
  • Circumcision and other forms of genital mutilation: is removing a part of a child's body appropriate in order to maintain tribal affiliation? If you, like me, think genital mutilation is always wrong, consider the fact that millions of parents still do it. Why do you think they do it? Again, sadism is the wrong answer. What benefits are the parents seeing that, to them, outweigh the cost?
  • Deafness: should deaf children be surgically altered to "fix" them? Should they be taught lip reading, sign language, or both? Parents must choose whether to immerse the child fully in the deaf community with full language acquisition, risking less engagement with the hearing community, or attempt to engage the child in the hearing community, risking poor language acquisition.
  • Divorce: what should be the parenting arrangement following a divorce? Should the child spend large amounts of time with each parent, splitting himself between two homes and lives, or have a primary parent and visit the other? (Prior to this, another hard decision may be whether to divorce in the first place.)
  • Parenting style: is authoritarian parenting worth the direct harm to the child and the risks to his future? Is relaxed, laissez-faire parenting appropriate? Both have benefits, but the risks of both may be grave.
  • Religion: what about the child's "spiritual" well-being and/or his mortal soul? Are the harms of religion worth the benefits?

The above list represents a tiny slice of the total space of hard parenting decisions. Almost everyone agrees that these decisions are grave matters with extremely serious consequences. It's a rare person who experiences no strong feelings when thinking about these matters.

The "curiosity of reasoning" I want to point out is this: despite the massive space of hard parenting decisions that everyone has strong feelings about, the decision to create a child is treated as trivial. The meta-decision - what might be expressed as the sum of all the subordinate hard decisions, or at least to have some relation to the space of hard parenting decisions - is uncritically treated as a wash.

Isn't it strange we should be so cavalier about flipping the switch that turns on all of these decisions, when we treat each sub-decision as grave and serious? Are not the consequences of the meta-decision worth at least as much consideration as a single one of the hard parenting decisions that will arise if the child is created?

That's my main point. I have another, related point concerning what Bryan Caplan has called "free disposal." His argument is that the decision to create a child is not that grave or serious, because (a) the child can always choose to commit suicide (tall buildings and all), but (b) hardly anyone does.

This line of logic seems to convince folks in regard to existence (flipping the overall switch). But think about it in relation to any of the hard parenting decisions I've mentioned here. If it is an argument that creating a child is not a grave matter, shouldn't it also be an argument that doing anything to a child that doesn't frequently result in suicide is not a grave matter? It sounds very strange, for instance, to argue that circumcision is not a grave matter because few victims of circumcision choose to commit suicide, yet suicide is easy. It sounds oddly callous to argue that giving children bleach enemas is not that serious because few victims commit suicide, and they could easily do so.

Is there a reason that the argument has force when applied to the gravity of the creation question, but not to the gravity of other hard parenting dilemmas?

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