Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Virtue, sin and normalcy   posted by Razib @ 8/27/2008 11:02:00 PM

Update: Overcoming Bias responds.

Reading excerpts of the memoirs of the Mughal warlord Babur, founder of the dynasty in India, I note that his father was an alcoholic. This is not exceptional in the lineage, the Emperor Jahangir's reign was marred by problems due to his alcoholism. Nevertheless, these individuals were faithful Muslims by all their other actions. In fact, I have noted before that the early Arab Caliphs, who were responsible for the spread and dominance of Islam across what we now term the Islamic world, were by an large appreciators of wine. I was struck by Babur's mention of his father's weakness for alcoholism because I recently read about Glorious Revolution. As you know James II lost his throne because of his sincere Roman Catholicism. He rejected apostasy as the price of regaining his position. If his private correspondences did not attest to his sincerity, his public actions surely did. Nevertheless, despite James' relative religious seriousness and moral qualms for a ruler of his day (in contrast to his brother, Charles II), he retained his mistress as was customary for British kings.

I point out these moral failings because I have always been struck by starkness of human hypocrisy and its incongruity in the face of avowed beliefs. How can a sincere Muslim drink alcohol? Have can a sincere Christian engage in sexual vice? One might infer from their actions that men such as James II were cynics, but as I note above James was willing to greatly reduce his chances of retaking his throne for the sake of his sincere religious commitment. I have been oversimplifying in reducing James' moral quandary to these two issues, contrasting the manifest evidence of his religious commitment in the face of inducements to convert to Protestantism with his sexual practices which contradicted Christian teaching. There are certainly other complicating factors, but I think the point stands that sin is common, and human weakness in the face of contradiction the norm. Mens' hearts are easily divided, and simultaneously sincere in their inclinations.

All this leads to the point that I believe far too many of those of us who wish to comprehend human nature scientifically lack a basic grasp of it intuitively. I have never truly believed in an awesome God of history, so my hypothetical behavior in reaction to this transcendent truth is conjecture. I know how I believe I will behave, but I have no true intuitive grasp. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that many atheists simply lack a deep understanding of what drives people to be religious, and that our psychological model of those who believe in gods is extremely suspect. The "irrationality" and "contradiction" of human behavior may be rendered far more systematically coherent simply by adding more parameters into the model. Too many "rationalists" insist on the primacy of their own spare and minimalist axioms, while normal humans may lack both the eloquence and intuition to communicate to their "rationalist" interlocutors that they are missing key structural variables. When I engage with these sorts of issues with readers of Overcoming Bias or Singularitarians my suspicions beocme even stronger because I see in some individuals an even greater lack of fluency in normal cognition than my own. What I am lacking in becomes all the more obvious when I see with my own eyes those who are even more damned in the eyes of God.

From all this one should not conclude that I see the reality of the mystical truths of gods before unveiled before my eyes. I do not. Rather, my point is that understanding human nature is not a matter of fitting humanity to our expectations and wishes, but modeling it as it is, whether one thinks that that nature is irrational or not within one's normative framework. Readers of this weblog are well aware and conscious of this issue; that is why I believe it is important to broach topics such as IQ because this variable matters, and most of us would wish that retardation was simply not a phenotype which was extant, but we know that that will not be so. Similarly, those of who are psychologically atypical enough to be rather obsessed with modeling human nature into a framework which is analytically tractable need to be more conscious of the alien complexities of the normal human mind, in all its baroque paradox.