Uncommon Sense

December 5, 2022


Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:20 am
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Someone on Quora (Feifei Wang) shared this rather helpful scheme.

“Allow me to introduce to you the Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.”

She was addressing the question “What causes them (atheists) to behave good (sic), if not eternal punishments?” Her point was that “If the only reason you behave yourself is to avoid punishment, your sense of morality remains at the same level as a toddler. You never matured even to school children or teenagers, let along becoming a civilized adult. Perhaps instead of asking supposed ‘gotcha questions’ on the internet, you should put some effort into ‘growing up’.”

Hear, hear! Well said.

June 20, 2022

Black and White Thinking

Filed under: Culture,Politics,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:18 am
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I was reading a podcast (“What is Life?”) transcript of a discussion of finding a definition of life we can all agree upon. (No, we do not yet have such a beastie.)

Here is a passage that struck me:

You know, it’s so easy for humans to think in dichotomies: good–bad; black–white; day–night. These are things that make life simple. It means we can categorize things very, very quickly. And early on in human history, this was the defense mechanism, because you had to make decisions very, very quickly. Whether or not you were going to shake that person’s hand or shoot an arrow at them. So we needed to make these decisions.

But we don’t have to do that when we’re thinking about the larger issues of the natural world. The natural world is amazingly intricate and complex. And how those chemical complex systems emerge, and at what point a complex chemical system is something that we truly will call alive, is not at all obvious.

“It is so easy for humans to think in dichotomies: good–bad; black–white; day–night.”

All the time we are doing this, nature is telling us: “Remember that you are making a gross simplification!” For example, when the dawn comes in the morning, the transition from “night” to “day” takes over an hour (way over an hour in the arctic regions). So, what is it during that transition period? Is it still night, or has it become day? For scientific purposes we have defined an “exact” time at which, say “dawn” occurs, but that time is not directly observable by a casual observer. And that is just us forcing our dichotomous thinking, our “black and white thinking” onto nature.

Look at the knots Southerners tied themselves into defining the difference between “black” and “white” people. Or the Nazis in defining “Aryan” and “other” peoples.

So, “black and white” thinking is just another form of Type 1 thinking (a la Daniel Kahneman) that allows us to act in short order when that is demanded of us. Unfortunately, unscrupulous people smear that kind of thinking over into issues that do not require rapid response thinking. So, we have the “us and them” dichotomies of politics, and the “believer and non-believer” dichotomies of religion.

Do any of you see a way around this? Is there a rhetorical trigger we might invent that will shift people away from dichotomous thinking when it isn’t helpful? Being a cynical old person, I assume if such a thing existed, humans would find a way to mis-use it.

February 24, 2021


Powerlessness is something we all experience. I remember seeing The Incredible Hulk TV show for the first time, as a 30-something year-old man, having read Hulk comics in my youth and I had the thought, seemingly for the first time, that I wished I had the ability to turn into a green monster and trash all of those who oppose me. Powerful people do not, I suspect, harbor such thoughts.

Powerlessness is a hallmark of the religious, which is interesting because in my view, religion exists to control the behaviors of the masses to serve the interests of the elites, both religious and secular. So, powerless people are participating in a practice that guarantees their powerlessness. Religious Irony should be a term.

Another facet of this I read about today was in a post on the medium.com website (The Optimism of Satan by Mitch Horowitz), in which the author stated: “The ethical or spiritual search, not as idealized but as actually lived, is a search for power. That is, for the ability to possess personal agency. We pray, ‘Thy will be done.’ We mean ‘my will be done’ — hoping that the two comport.”

He added “The novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer . . . detected, (that) we are not very different from the classical magician when we strive, morally and materially, to carry forth our plans in the world — to ensure the betterment of ourselves and our loved ones; to heal sickness; to create, sustain, and, above all, to generate things which bear our markings, ideals, and likenesses. All of this is the expenditure of power, the striving to actualize our drives and images.”

Ah, to heal sickness. I am still drawn to fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley to L.E. Modessit, Jr. who have characters who heal by mysterious forces, that is they have the “power” of healing. I learned in those books that my name means “the crowned one” and “the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.” I would love, just love to have that power.

We all wish we had more power than we actually do to some extent. This fuels our cooperation with others, for one as a preventative of them being more powerful than us and impressing their will on us and also to acquire the power of the group.

Chrsitianity taps into this, ostensibly for our benefit . . . but not really, by telling us we have an all-powerful friend who will help us, reward us even,  and punish our enemies. This being is all-powerful but for some reason must wait until we die before exerting that power on our behalf. This doesn’t explain, at all, why my enemy, let’s call him Bruce, gets punished when I am Bruce’s enemy and so should not that god be punishing me on Bruce’s behalf? Who gets to be the whipping boy here? Is it determined how much you give when the offering plate is passed around? What?

There is a little mental game we play (at least I do) of: “what I would do if I were in charge.” I have played this game a great many times because I developed a stock line near the end of those discussions of “Well, surely the world would be a better place if we were in charge.” This was almost always followed by laughter, from the knowledge that we do not really want to be in charge, nor would we recognize the right things to do if they bit us in the ass were we in one of those positions. We were just voicing our powerlessness, broadcasting a recognition signal for ordinary citizens as much as the middle-aged grunt is for middle-aged men.

September 24, 2018

Interesting Patterns

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:41 am
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The President Donald J. Trump makes accusations by the score, mostly unfounded, often borrowed from scurrilous “news” sources (what we would call “fake news”). He says “Climate Change is a hoax.” He claims the Assistant Attorney General is conspiring to tape record his conversations and is considering invoking the 25th Amendment to the Constitution (what to do when the President is incapacitated). He claims that the FBI is conspiring against him, Hillary is crooked, Cohen and Manafort are “good men,” etc., etc.

None of these ideas occur to us unprompted, so where does the President get them? The answer is simple. Some he plucks from the ideasphere of the alt-right and some he makes up. All are things he would think of doing or being. “So and so is a liar” comes from the fact that he lies easily, so others probably do, too. Claims that people are doing things just for the money are because he does things just for the money. Claims that people who speak against him are treasonous because he is treasonous. Claims that Climate Change is a Hoax, well just consider a great many of The Donald’s business enterprises: Trump University, etc. He would lie to make money, no?

Instead of reacting to the President’s claims as we would to factual claims, I think it best that we look at them as a reflection (the psychological term is “projection,” I believe) of his own thoughts.

Not a pretty picture.

Addendum Anyone who accepts the claim the Climate Change is a hoax, supposedly perpetrated by climate scientists to acquire grant monies, is an idiot. Most scientists are egotists of the highest order; they would throw their grandmothers under a bus to be able to prove their colleagues are wrong and they are right. Any such conspiracy would be betrayed almost instantly by a scientist counting coup on his “colleagues.” Scientists who “cheat” even to the point of fabrication some data here and there are humiliated and drummed out of the business, soon to become cab drivers as they have no prospects in the scientific community.

March 8, 2018

Are Religion and Gaslighting One and the Same?

Filed under: Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:47 am
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Here is an excellent description of gaslighting. At first it appeared to be just an essay on psychology, but upon reflection I think it has something to say about Evangelical Christinaity.


November 23, 2016

Steven Pinker on a Lesson We Have Failed to Learn

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 1:02 pm
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(Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and author)

“Perhaps the greatest discovery in human history, one that is logically prior to every other discovery, is that all of our traditional sources of belief are, in fact, generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. These include: faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophesy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, and that warm, invigorating glow of subjective certainty.”

Can you imagine what politics would look like without all of that?


July 23, 2016

Ah, Ha! Check This Out!

I have been working my way through a book (Everybody Is Wrong About God by James A. Lindsay) in which the author addresses how to meet the needs of god-fearers naturally which are now being met by “god.” What I was struck with is how in each psychosocial need believing in a god was a shortcut, a lazy way to a conclusion. (I once joked that a fundamentalist biology textbook would have a simple answer book for all of the listed exercise, namely “The correct answer is a. God did it.”) And in the background of my thoughts was “well, what can you expect from effing human beings.” But . . . in the vein of “seek and you will find” I encountered a brand new Veritasium video that answered my question.

Veritasium is an English-language educational science channel on YouTube created by Derek Muller who is a fricking brilliant, absolutely amazing science communicator (originally from Australia and Canada) although he now lives in L.A. (no accounting for taste, eh?). He is so very good I support his video making through Patreon.

This topic of this short video is cognitive ease, which describes the psychological aspect of our makeup in which the easier something is to take in or the more frequently we see something, the more likely we are to like it or think it is true or paint it as benign or even good. And there are plausible reasons why we evolved to have this “ability.”

Cognitive ease and its opposite cognitive strain explain a great deal of the behavior of god-fearers and the rest of us, too.

Check it out: The Illusion of Truth


May 6, 2013

An Imaginarium of Meaning

A recurring topic in this blog is the rabid thirst we seem to have for meaning. We have created tens of thousands of gods to be responsible for myriad things we could not describe at the time. We have had a god of lightning, a god of the wind, a good of good luck and one for bad luck, a god of a spring (not all springs, just one in particular, actually many of these). When the ground shook from an earthquake, we attributed it to some god’s message which had a particular meaning. “Uh, the ground god is unhappy with us. We must mend our ways.”

There seems to be no limit to this thirst for meaning. I remember a New Yorker magazine cartoon in which one psychologist passed another in the hall and said “Hello,” while a thought balloon over the second psychologist said “I wonder what he meant by that?” At the time I thought it was a comment about psychologists but now I realize it is a comment about human behavior.

Where did this desire to find meaning everywhere come from? I can’t know whether anyone will be able to prove this but, as Bob Newhart used to say, I suspect it went something like this: when we evolved our big brains we found a use for them while out hunting. There were distinct advantages to having multiple hunters working in concert. The problem involved how to coordinate the hunt, how to turn a bunch of individuals into a team. Presumably grunts and hand signals worked up close and louder vocalizations worked from farther away. The question, though is what did that particular grunt or whistle mean? So through pantomime they eventually developed a vocabulary of hunting instructions. You can see the modern equivalents in any action-adventure movie when a group leader, moving his group in silence, stops the group in its tracks by an upheld clenched fist. Then moves them again with a hand wave.

The greater the communication, the greater the success of the hunt and the greater the demand for more communication. You could also substitute plant gathering as the activity (Ugh, this one poisonous. Mmm, this one okay but tastes bad.) or a number of different things. Such ability to communicate became very important on those occasions in which one family group encountered another. The encounters, as archeoanthropologists have determined, could be quite deadly. A larger group of males may decide to kill a smaller group’s males and take their females, for example. So communication was very helpful to prevent misunderstandings and possibly to negotiate bribes.

The central issue, always, was what did those grunts, clicks, and other vocalizations mean. One tribe’s grunts might be another’s whistles.

And as we developed language, it became a more and more valuable tool, so we developed nuances. We could agree with somebody sarcastically, indicating we do not agree. This meant that the words themselves didn’t carry all of the meaning. Some linguists state that the words themselves carry less than 10% of the meaning of any statement now. Tone, inflection, affect all carry more meaning.

So when frightening occurrences happened, it became natural to seek meaning as well as inherent dangers. Lunar eclipses, thunderstorms, herbivore stampedes, all had meaning sought for them.

So, at least this tendency is imaginable.

But there is no limit to it. It is like a three-year old asking “Why?” The question cannot be answered.

One critique of atheism is that without a god, life would have no meaning. So, people who believe this have created an all purpose answer to the question: what is the meaning of life? Their answer is “God has a plan for you.” But you can’t question the mind of God, so that is the end of the question.* (Whew, I didn’t think there was one!)

Well, there is a answer to “what is the meaning of life?” That is: if you want your life to have a meaning, you must live it so that it does.

* According to the Catholic Catechism “He created us so that we would know, love, and serve him.” So God’s plan is that you be an informed infatuated servant.” It pays to not ask too many questions.

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