Exoplanets and Faith

I am pleased to see half of the Nobel Prize in Physics this year go to the first confirmed discovery of a planet orbiting a star like our sun. Since then, evidence for thousands of planets circling other stars has been gathered, including a kind of census conducted by the Kepler orbiting telescope, from which scientists drew this estimate:

There is at least one planet on average per star.[See abstract below.] About 1 in 5 Sun-like stars[a] have an "Earth-sized"[b] planet in the habitable zone.

I have had a longstanding interest in discoveries of planets around other stars. What I remember is how many false starts there were and the period when some scientists said that the lack of confirmed discoveries of planets around other stars meant that there might not be any. In hindsight, excessive optimism about the accuracy of detection methods led to a period of excessive pessimism about the existence of exoplanets.

To me, then, the eventual confirmed discoveries of exoplanets were a triumph of faith over doubt. By faith I simply mean a belief that influences action that, at the time, is based on inadequate evidence. In this sense, we all have to make decisions based on faith very frequently. I emphasize this point in my post “The Unavoidability of Faith.”

I’ll save any discussion of other intelligent life in the universe for another post, but I want to point out something very interesting about exoplanets from the standpoint of popular culture: being literally light-years away, sending probes to exoplanets is dauntingly difficult and might require not only key technological advances, but also enormous patience. But imaging exoplanets, while quite difficult, is something we can hope to do even in my lifetime, let alone in the lifetime of those who are now young graduate students. There is now a growing list of exoplanets that have officially agreed-upon proper names; there is hope that some exoplanets will become familiar to even elementary school students, as the list of their known properties grows.

It is hard to keep up with the onrushing discoveries about exoplanets, but I hope someone will put together a high-quality children’s book on exoplanets that reflects at least everything we know today. Both exoplanets themselves and their discovery are inspiring to me, and I think would be inspiring to many youngsters.

Will Your Uploaded Mind Still Be You? —Michael Graziano

On August 18, 2019, I posted “On Being a Copy of Someone's Mind.” I was intrigued to see from the teaser for Michael Graziano’s new book Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience, published as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on September 13, 2019, that Michael Graziano has been thinking along similar lines.

Michael explains the the process of copying someone’s mind (obviously not doable by human technology yet!) this way:

To upload a person’s mind, at least two technical challenges would need to be solved. First, we would need to build an artificial brain made of simulated neurons. Second, we would need to scan a person’s actual, biological brain and measure exactly how its neurons are connected to each other, to be able to copy that pattern in the artificial brain. Nobody knows if those two steps would really re-create a person’s mind or if other, subtler aspects of the biology of the brain must be copied as well, but it is a good starting place.

Michael nicely describes the experience of the copy, which following Robin Hanson I call an “em,” short for “brain emulation” in “On Being a Copy of Someone's Mind”:

Suppose I decide to have my brain scanned and my mind uploaded. Obviously, nobody knows what the process will really entail, but here’s one scenario: A conscious mind wakes up. It has my personality, memories, wisdom and emotions. It thinks it’s me. It can continue to learn and remember, because adaptability is the essence of an artificial neural network. Its synaptic connections continue to change with experience.

Sim-me (that is, simulated me) looks around and finds himself in a simulated, videogame environment. If that world is rendered well, it will look pretty much like the real world, and his virtual body will look like a real body. Maybe sim-me is assigned an apartment in a simulated version of Manhattan, where he lives with a whole population of other uploaded people in digital bodies. Sim-me can enjoy a stroll through the digitally rendered city on a beautiful day with always perfect weather. Smell, taste and touch might be muted because of the overwhelming bandwidth required to handle that type of information. By and large, however, sim-me can think to himself, “Ah, that upload was worth the money. I’ve reached the digital afterlife, and it’s a safe and pleasant place to live. May the computing cloud last indefinitely!”

Then Michael goes on to meditate on the fact that there can then be two of me and whether that makes the copy not-you. Here is what I said on that, in “On Being a Copy of Someone's Mind”:

On the assumption that experience comes from particles and fields known to physics (or of the same sort as those known to physics now), and that the emulation is truly faithful, there is nothing hidden. An em that is a copy of you will feel that it is a you. Of course, if you consented to the copying process, an em that is a copy of you will have that memory, which is likely to make it aware that there is now more than one of you. But that does NOT make it not-you.

You might object that the lack of physical continuity makes the em copy of you not-you. But our sense of physical continuity with our past selves is largely an illusion. There is substantial turnover in the particular particles in us. Similarity of memory—memory now being a superset of memory earlier, minus some forgetting—is the main thing that makes me think I am the same person as a particular human being earlier in time.

… after the copying event these two lines of conscious experience are isolated from one another as any two human beings are mentally isolated from one another. But these two consciousnesses that don’t have the same experience after the split are both me, with a full experience of continuity of consciousness from the past me. If one of these consciousnesses ends permanently, then one me ends but the other me continues. It is possible to both die and not die.

The fact that there can be many lines of subjectively continuous consciousness that are all me may seem strange, but it may be happening all the time anyway given the implication of quantum equations taken at face value that all kinds of quantum possibilities all happen. (This is the “Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”)

In other words, it may seem strange that there could be two of you, but that doesn’t make either of them not-you.

Michael points out that the digital world the copy lives in (if the copy is not embedded in a physical robot) will interact with the physical world we live in:

He may live in the cloud, with a simulated instead of a physical body, but his leverage on the real world would be as good as anyone else’s. We already live in a world where almost everything we do flows through cyberspace. We keep up with friends and family through text and Twitter, Facebook and Skype. We keep informed about the world through social media and internet news. Even our jobs, some of them at least, increasingly exist in an electronic space. As a university professor, for example, everything I do, including teaching lecture courses, writing articles and mentoring young scientists, could be done remotely, without my physical presence in a room.

The same could be said of many other jobs—librarian, CEO, novelist, artist, architect, member of Congress, President. So a digital afterlife, it seems to me, wouldn’t become a separate place, utopian or otherwise. Instead, it would become merely another sector of the world, inhabited by an ever-growing population of citizens just as professionally, socially and economically connected to social media as anyone else.

He goes on to think about whether ems, derived from copying of minds, would have a power advantage over flesh-and-blood humans, and goes on to wonder if a digital afterlife has the same kind of motivational consequences as telling people about heaven and hell. What he misses is Robin Hanson’s incisive economic analysis in the The Age of Em that, because of the low cost of copying and running ems, there could easily be trillions of ems and only billions of flesh-and-blood humans once copying of minds gets going. There could be many copies derived from a single flesh-and-blood human, but with different experiences after the copying event from the flesh-and-blood human. (There would be the most copies of those people who are the most productive.) I think Robin’s analysis is right. That means that ems would be by far the most common type of human being. Fortunately, they are likely to have a lot of affection for the flesh-and-blood human beings they were copied from and for other flesh-and-blood human beings they remember from their remembered from their past as flesh-and-blood human beings. (However, some ems might be copied from infants and spend almost all of their remembered life in cyberspace.)

Michael also writes about how brain emulation could make interstellar travel possible. He talks about many ems keeping each other company on an interstellar journey, but the equivalent of suspended animation is a breeze for for ems, so there is no need for ems to be awake during the journey at all. Having many backups of each type of em can make the journey safer, as well. The other thing that makes interstellar travel easier is that, upon arrival in another solar system or other faraway destination, when physical action is necessary, the robots some of the ems are embedded in to do those actions can be quite small.

But while interstellar travel becomes much easier with ems, Robin Hanson argues that the bulk of em history would take place before ems had a chance to get to other solar systems: it is likely to be easy and economically advantageous to speed up many ems to a thousand or even a million times the speed of flesh-and-blood human beings. At those speeds, the time required for interstellar travel seems much longer. Ems would want to go to the stars for the adventure and for the honor of being founders and progenitors in those new environments, but in terms of subjective time, a huge amount of time would have passed for the ems back home on Earth before any report from the interstellar travelers could ever be received.

Robin Hanson argues that, while many things would be strange to us in The Age of Em, that most ems would think “It’s good to be an em.” (Of course, their word for it would likely be different from “em.”) I agree. I think few ems would want to be physical human beings living in our age. Just as from our perspective now (if enlightened by a reasonably accurate knowledge of history), the olden days will be the bad old days. I, for one, would love to experience The Age of Em as an em. It opens up so many possibilities for life!

I know that an accurate copy of my mind would feel it was me, and I, the flesh-and-blood Miles, consider any such being that comes to exist to be me. In Robin’s economic analysis, the easy of copying ems leads to stiff competition among workers, so even if a copy of me were there in The Age of Em, I wouldn’t expect there to be many copies of me. I very much doubt that I would be among the select few who had billions of copies, or even a thousand copies. But I figure that at worst, a handful of copies could make a living as guinea pigs for social science research, where diversity of human beings subjects come from makes things interesting. And if the interest rates in The Age of Em are as high as Robin thinks they would be, by strenuous saving, the ems that are me might be able to save up enough money after a time or working in order to not have to work any more.

John Locke: The People are the Judge of the Rulers

In the last four sections of the last chapter (“Of the Dissolution of Government”) of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, John Locke answers the question of “Who should be the judge of whether rulers have overstepped their bounds?” thus: “the body of the people.” John Locke gives an excellent reason for why: rulers are the trustees or deputies of the people.

John Locke also poses and answers another hard question: What if a ruler refuses to be judged by the people? He says that if a ruler refuses to be judged by the people, then anyone who judges that a ruler has overstepped his or her bounds may consider themself to be at war with that ruler. I think John Locke would consider this provision not to apply in a democracy in which regular free elections can topple a ruler.

§. 240. Here, it is like, the common question will be made, Who shall be judge, whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their trust? This, perhaps ill-affected and factious men may spread amongst the people, when the prince only makes use of his due prerogative. To this I reply, The people shall be judge; for who shall be judge whether his trustee or deputy acts well, and according to the trust reposed in him, but he who deputes him, and must, by having deputed him, have still a power to discard him, when he fails in his trust? If this be reasonable in particular cases of private men, why should it be otherwise in that of the greatest moment, where the welfare of millions is concerned, and also where the evil, if not prevented, is greater, and the redress very difficult, dear, and dangerous?

§. 241. But farther, this question, (Who shall be judge?) cannot mean, that there is no judge at all: for where there is no judicature on earth, to decide controversies amongst men, God in heaven is judge. He alone, it is true, is judge of the right. But every man is judge for himself, as in all other cases, so in this whether another hath put himself into a state of war with him, and whether he should appeal to the Supreme Judge, as Jephtha did.

§. 242. If a controversy arise betwixt a prince and some of the people, in a matter where the law is silent, or doubtful, and the thing be of great consequence, I should think the proper umpire, in such a case, should be the body of the people: for in cases where the prince hath a trust reposed in him, and is dispensed from the common ordinary rules of the law; there, if any men find themselves aggrieved, and think the prince acts contrary to, or beyond that trust, who so proper to judge as the body of the people, (who, at first, lodged that trust in him) how far they meant it should extend? But if the prince, or whoever they be in the administration, decline that way of determination, the appeal then lies no where but to heaven; force between either persons, who have no known superior on earth, or which permits no appeal to a judge on earth, being properly a state of war, wherein the appeal lies only to heaven; and in that state the injured party must judge for himself, when he will think fit to make use of that appeal, and put himself upon it.

In very last section of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government John Locke declares himself a constitutionalist in the sense that once a form of government is in place that sets proper bounds on rulers, the constitutional forms already established must be followed, except “when by the miscarriages of those in authority it is forfeited.”

§. 243. To conclude, The power that every individual gave the society, when he entered into it, can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community, no commonwealth, which is contrary to the original agreement: so also when the society hath placed the legislative in any assembly of men, to continue in them and their successors, with direction and authority for providing such successors, the legislative can never revert to the people whilst that government lasts; because having provided a legislative with power to continue for ever, they have given up their political power to the legislative, and cannot resume it. But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person, or assembly, only temporary; or else, when by the miscarriages of those in authority it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves; or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good.

Throughout his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government John Locke is insistent that rulers, too, are subject to the rule of law. And the rule of civil law is in turn subject to the preexisting law of nature.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Chris Kimball: The Language of Doubt

A pond and stand of aspens near Chris’s home

A pond and stand of aspens near Chris’s home

I am pleased to have another guest post on religion from my brother Chris. (You can see other guest posts by Chris listed at the bottom of this post.) In what Chris has written below, he is wrestling not just with what he thinks and feels about Mormonism, but also with what he thinks and feels about Christianity and about belief in God itself.


The Skeptic

I am a skeptic, an empiricist, a Bayesian. These are not moral statements or value judgments. They are simply observations about how and whether I know anything. Essentially a matter of epistemology.

This is me, and a few other people I know. I’m sure many people think differently and that’s OK. I know there are discussions about the nature of the world, of human beings generally. Interesting discussion. Ones I’m not equipped to argue but interested to listen. This is not about the general case. Just about me.

A skeptic questions the possibility of certainty or knowledge about anything (even knowledge about knowing). An empiricist recognizes experience derived from the senses. A Bayesian views knowledge as constantly updating degrees of belief. In a functional sense, in the way it works in my life, I only know anything as a product of neurochemicals and hormones in the present. 

In science, in law, in everyday life, being a skeptic is not a big deal; it is even usual or typical to talk like a skeptic. But in religion it is a big deal.

The Spirit: When the topic of doubt comes up, a common biblical reply is that the Spirit is the ultimate witness. “The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit” (Romans 8:16 KJV). I don’t suppose everybody has the same idea what that means; I hear it as a Platonic ideal of Truth or Knowledge, and a dualist body-soul where God or the Spirit speaks directly to the soul in some form of indisputable ultimate knowledge. “For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:8

However this works for others, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t recognize any Spirit-to-soul ultimate knowledge communication. Only neurochemicals and hormones. I am reasonably satisfied there is an external world that impinges on my senses. I am willing to make room for an external supernatural world, although I am more likely categorized agnostic than believing. But the external world, natural or supernatural, ultimately registers through neurochemicals and hormones. There is no back channel, no source of certainty.  

Testing Faith: Sometimes religious people talk about overcoming doubt with tested faith. “That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:7. A Mormon version is the frequently referenced Alma 32:24, which compares the word to a seed, which if given place will begin to swell, “and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within your selves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good.” Plant the seed, watch it grow, come to “know” by proof of results.

I do in fact notice that giving place for a seed can lead to good feelings and positive experiences. However, cause and effect are mysterious to me, pattern searching is a real phenomenon, confirmation bias happens. In other words, I feel the swelling motions, but I never get to “must needs be.” The “must” is forever elusive.

Sensus Divinitatis: French Protestant reformer John Calvin used the term sensus divinitatis (“sense of divinity”) to describe a hypothetical human sense:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some “sensus divinitatis,” we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead … [T]his is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I, Chapter III)

Not me. It has been suggested that this sense does not work properly in some humans due to sin. (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief). I don’t believe it, but that is certainly a theory I have heard in Mormon circles as well.  

Gift of the Holy Ghost: The way Mormons often talk about the gift of the Holy Ghost sounds a lot like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, including Plantinga’s theory that the sense may not work due to sin. From The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Gospel Principles, a reasonable indicator of how Mormons talk, even if not doctrine by some definitions:

The Holy Ghost usually communicates with us quietly. His influence is often referred to as a “still small voice” . . .  The Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that you feel more than you hear . . . [T]he Holy Ghost will come to us only when we are faithful and desire help from this heavenly messenger. To be worthy to have the help of the Holy Ghost, we must seek earnestly to obey the commandments of God. We must keep our thoughts and actions pure. (Gospel Principles, Chapter 21: The Gift of the Holy Ghost, p. 123.)

I read the “thoughts and actions pure” worthiness requirement and recognize that saying “not me” can come across as a confession. But . . .  not me.

In short, for me there is no back channel, there is no Spirit-to-soul communication, there is no Gift, that I recognize as anything more than neurochemicals and hormones. Everything I know or think I know is subject to the limitations and failings of mortality. I am not certain of my own memories, my perceptions, or my emotions. I recall “burning in the bosom” experiences; I have dreamed dreams; I have seen visions. Some of these experiences have changed my life. Some of these experiences feel fresh in memory because I tell stories about them. But where they came from and what they mean seem forever a matter of interpretation. I attach meaning in the present over the surface of uncertain memory of an inherently ambiguous experience. I don’t recognize a back door, a sysop or root, an access to indisputable ultimate knowledge. I am not certain, always and forever.

The Language of Doubt

As a skeptic, the language of “doubt” can be misleading or misconstrued. Doubt can be a simple synonym for skepticism. There is a sense in which I live in a state of doubt always and forever. Because it is too all-encompassing, “doubt” is not a useful concept for me. Therefore, I find it useful to expand the vocabulary and to use words like cynicism, belief, probability, and trust.

Cynicism: A friend once said “assume goodwill.” I’m sure it was not original with him, but it stuck as good advice, reinforced by the example of his good life.

The cynic does not assume goodwill. The cynic disbelieves the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions. The cynic sees the natural man, the economic maximizer, the selfish gene, in human interaction. The cynic sees the church’s decisions and policies in terms of the collection plate or tithing receipts.

I know people who play the intellectual game of explaining everything in selfish self-centered terms. But I am convinced there is more--love and altruism and God and friendship and loyalty and long-term perspectives that extend beyond any one person’s lifetime. Therefore, I generally think I am not a cynic.

Probability and Belief: Belief sometimes sounds like a binary—you believe or you disbelieve. But it doesn’t have to be a binary. I experience life as a swarm of probabilities. It is not clear there is any propositional statement I could 100% agree or 100% disagree with.

I can adopt the language of belief and disbelief by taking high probability propositions and calling them belief, and low probability propositions and calling them disbelief. And there is substance here. It’s not all word play. It is very possible for my high probability propositions to correspond to your beliefs or certainties or knowledge. Living in a swarm of probabilities does not mean anything goes.

On the other hand, church people often use “I know” or “beyond a shadow of doubt” phrases and I struggle to fit in. Narrowly speaking, high probability is not the same as knowledge, and turning a highly probable proposition into an “I know” would feel like playing to the crowd—using the words the community expects. More broadly, living in a swarm of probabilities makes me constantly aware of uncertainty and I wonder whether there is anything in the nature of a statement about faith or belief about which I have enough confidence to consider the move to “I know.”

Trust: I find “trust” the most useful concept to structure my religious thinking and conversation. Trust feels like a principle of action. Is my confidence level sufficient to make choices or turn my life or make a commitment? That’s trust.

Instead of asking “do I believe in God?” or “does God exist?” the question becomes Ivan’s question (Ivan of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov) “How can I trust God if he allows the most unthinkable evils to destroy innocents like the little girl?” In formal terms, this is not a logical theodicy (is it rational or is there an explanation that makes sense?) It is not exactly the evidential theodicy (does the weight of evidence, including the amount of evil in the world, argue for or against God?) It is more like an existential or pastoral theodicy that asks whether God makes sense in my life, in my circumstances, in light of my pain?

Instead of asking “do I believe in Christ?”—an existence proof kind of question--the question becomes one of confidence in an atonement. Is the child Yeshua born of Mariam someone I can trust in as a Savior? Is there a Christology (a theology regarding the person, nature, and role of Christ), a soteriology (a doctrine of salvation), that makes sense to me? That motivates me? That I am willing to trust in? Enough that I am willing to take up the cross and follow?

All this leading up to the questions that arise when turning the lens of trust on the Church. As I think about trusting the Church, the catalog of standard truth claims do not strike me as very important. Instead, I think about questions like Do I trust leaders? Or, Which leaders do I trust? Do I trust the disciplinary system, the process by which some human representative judges my qualifications? Is the doctrine, the description of how God works, the Plan, a reliable representation of reality? Do I trust the history as taught in the standard curriculum? Do I trust the Church’s claim to effect salvation? Do I trust the process of extending callings or making assignments? Do I trust the Church as custodian of tithes and offerings?

For me, every one of these trust questions is thought-provoking. Not quickly answered by reference to truth claims or “I know” kinds of belief statements. For me these trust questions lead to a very nuanced relationship with God and Christ and the Church. Neither all in nor all out but forever tentative and questioning.

 Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

John Locke: Even Monarchists Admit there are Some Circumstances When It is Appropriate to Rise Up Against a King

In Sections 223-227 of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” John Locke is insistent that rulers, like the ruled, can commit crimes that deserve punishment. And all too often, an uprising is the only way to deal with very serious crimes by a ruler. That view I discussed in “If Rebellion is a Sin, It is a Sin Committed Most Often by Those in Power.”

In Sections 230, 231 and the first half of 232, John Locke repeats this basic view that (a) rulers are subject to the law (including the law of nature) as much as the ruled are and (b) if a rule commits an infraction big enough to engender an uprising with any real chance of success, it is likely that the ruler has made truly grave invasions of the people’s liberty and truly grave harms to their welfare:

§. 230. Nor let any one say, that mischief can arise from hence, as often as it shall please a busy head, or turbulent spirit, to desire the alteration of the government. It is true, such men may stir, whenever they please; but it will be only to their own just ruin and perdition: for till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part, the people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir. The examples of particular injustice, or oppression of here and there an unfortunate man, moves them not. But if they universally have a persuasion, grounded upon manifest evidence, that designs are carrying on against their liberties, and the general course and tendency of things cannot but give them strong suspicions of the evil intention of their governors, who is to be blamed for it? Who can help it, if they, who might avoid it, bring themselves into this suspicion? Are the people to be blamed, if they have the sense of rational creatures, and can think of things no otherwise than as they find and feel them? And is it not rather their fault, who put things into such a posture, that they would not have them thought to be as they are? I grant, that the pride, ambition, and turbulency of private men have sometimes caused great disorders in commonwealths, and factions have been fatal to states and kingdoms. But whether the mischief hath oftener begun in the people’s wantonness, and a desire to cast off the lawful authority of their rulers, or in the rulers’ insolence, and endeavours to get and exercise an arbitrary power over their people; whether oppression or disobedience, gave the first rise to the disorder, I leave it to impartial history to determine. This I am sure, whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the foundation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, is highly guilty of the greatest crime, I think, a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country. And he who does it, is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly.

§. 231. That subjects or foreigners, attempting by force on the properties of any people, may be resisted with force, is agreed on all hands. But that magistrates, doing the same thing, may be resisted, hath of late been denied: as if those who had the greatest privileges and advantages by the law, had thereby a power to break those laws, by which alone they were set in a better place than their brethren: whereas their offence is thereby the greater, both as being ungrateful for the greater share they have by the law, and breaking also that trust, which is put into their hands by their brethren.

§. 232. Whosoever uses force without right, as every one does in society, who does it without law, puts himself into a state of war with those against whom he so uses it; and in that state all former ties are cancelled, all other rights cease, and every one has a right to defend himself, and to resist the aggressor.

John Locke’s repetition of this point indicates how important he thought the point to be.

Beginning with the second half of Section 232 and continuing through Section 239, John Locke shows that even the Monarchists Barclay and Winzerus, plus, he claims, Bilson, Bracton, Fortescue, the author of The Mirrour and Hooker, admit of some circumstances in which it is appropriate to rise up against a king, or someone who had been thought of as a king. In the quotation that follows, I delayed two long Latin passages to the end of this post, leaving the English translations in their original locations:

This is so evident, that Barclay himself, that great assertor of the power and sacredness of kings, is forced to confess, That it is lawful for the people, in some cases, to resist their king; and that too in a chapter, wherein he pretends to shew, that the divine law shuts up the people from all manner of rebellion. Whereby it is evident, even by his own doctrine, that, since they may in some cases resist, all resisting of princes is not rebellion. His words are these: [First Latin passage from Barclay] In English thus:

§. 233. “But if any one should ask, Must the people then always lay themselves open to the cruelty and rage of tyranny? Must they see their cities pillaged, and laid in ashes, their wives and children exposed to the tyrant’s lust and fury, and themselves and families reduced by their king to ruin, and all the miseries of want and oppression, and yet sit still? Must men alone be debarred the common privilege of opposing force with force, which nature allows so freely to all other creatures for their preservation from injury? I answer: Self-defence is a part of the law of nature; nor can it be denied the community, even against the king himself: but to revenge themselves upon him, must by no means be allowed them: it being not agreeable to that law. Wherefore if the king shall shew an hatred, not only to some particular persons, but sets himself against the body of the commonwealth, whereof he is the head, and shall, with intolerable ill usage, cruelly tyrannize over the whole, or a considerable part of the people, in this case the people have a right to resist and defend themselves from injury: but it must be with this caution, that they only defend themselves, but do not attack their prince: they may repair the damages received, but must not for any provocation exceed the bounds of due reverence and respect. They may repulse the present attempt, but must not revenge past violences: for it is natural for us to defend life and limb, but that an inferior should punish a superior, is against nature. The mischief which is designed them, the people may prevent before it be done; but when it is done, they must not revenge it on the king, though author of the villany. This therefore is the privilege of the people in general, above what any private person hath; that particular men are allowed by our adversaries themselves (Buchanan only excepted) to have no other remedy but patience; but the body of the people may with respect resist intolerable tyranny; for when it is but moderate, they ought to endure it.”

§. 234. Thus far that great advocate of monarchical power allows of resistance.

§. 235. It is true, he has annexed two limitations to it, to no purpose: First, He says, it must be with reverence. Secondly, It must be without retribution, or punishment; and the reason he gives is, because an inferior cannot punish a superior. First, How to resist force without striking again, or how to strike with reverence, will need some skill to make intelligible. He that shall oppose an assault only with a shield to receive the blows, or in any more respectful posture, without a sword in his hand, to abate the confidence and force of the assailant, will quickly be at an end of his resistance,and will find such a defence serve only to draw on himself the worse usage. This is as ridiculous a way of resisting, as Juvenal thought it of fighting; ubi tu pulsas, ego vapulo tantum. And the success of the combat will be unavoidably the same he there describes it: —“Libertas pauperis hæc est: Pulsatus rogat, & pugnis concisus, adorat, Ut liceat paucis cum dentibus inde reverti.”This will always be the event of such an imaginary resistance, where men may not strike again. He therefore who may resist must be allowed to strike. And then let our author, or any body else, join a knock on the head, or a cut on the face, with as much reverence and respect as he thinks fit. He that can reconcile blows and reverence, may, for aught I know, desire for his pains, a civil, respectful cudgeling wherever he can meet with it. Secondly, As to his second, An inferior cannot punish a superior; that is true, generally speaking, whilst he is his superior. But to resist force with force, being the state of warthat levels the parties, cancels all former relation of reverence, respect, and superiority:and then the odds that remains, is, that he, who opposes the unjust aggressor, has this superiority over him, that he has a right, when he prevails, to punish the offender, both for the breach of the peace, and all the evils that followed upon it. Barclay therefore, in another place, more coherently to himself, denies it to be lawful to resist a king in any case. But he there assigns two cases, whereby a king may unking himself. His words are, [Second Latin passage from Barclay] Which in English runs thus:

§. 237. “What then, can there be no case happen wherein the people may of right, and by their own authority, help themselves, take arms, and set upon their king, imperiously domineering over them? None at all, whilst he remains a king. Honour the king, and he that resists the power, resists the ordinance of God; are divine oracles that will never permit it. The people therefore can never come by a power over him, unless he does something that makes him cease to be a king: for then he divests himself of his crown and dignity, and returns to the state of a private man, and the people become free and superior, the power which they had in the interregnum, before they crowned him king, devolving to them again. But there are but few miscarriages which bring the matter to this state. After considering it well on all sides, I can find but two. Two cases there are, I say, whereby a king, ipso facto, becomes no king, and loses all power and regal authority over his people; which are also taken notice of by Winzerus. “The first is, If he endeavour to overturn the government, that is, if he have a purpose and design to ruin the kingdom and commonwealth, as it is recorded of Nero, that he resolved to cut off the senate and people of Rome, lay the city waste with fire and sword, and then remove to some other place. And of Caligula, that he openly declared, that he would be no longer a head to the people or senate, and that he had it in his thoughts to cut off the worthiest men of both ranks, and then retire to Alexandria: and he wished that the people had but one neck, that he might dispatch them all at a blow. Such designs as these, when any king harbours in his thoughts, and seriously promotes, he immediately gives up all care and thought of the commonwealth; and consequently forfeits the power of governing his subjects, as a master does the dominion over his slaves whom he hath abandoned.

§. 238. “The other case is, When a king makes himself the dependent of another, and subjects his kingdom which his ancestors left him, and the people put free into his hands, to the dominion of another: for however perhaps it may not be his intention to prejudice the people; yet because he has hereby lost the principal part of regal dignity, viz. to be next and immediately under God, supreme in his kingdom; and also because he betrayed or forced his people, whose liberty he ought to have carefully preserved, into the power and dominion of a foreign nation. By this, as it were, alienation of his kingdom, he himself loses the power he had in it before, without transferring any the least right to those on whom he would have bestowed it; and so by this act sets the people free, and leaves them at their own disposal. One example of this is to be found in the Scotch Annals.”

§. 239. In these cases Barclay, the great champion of absolute monarchy, is forced to allow, that a king may be resisted, and ceases to be a king. That is, in short, not to multiply cases, in whatsoever he has no authority, there he is no king, and may be resisted: for wheresoever the authority ceases, the king ceases too, and becomes like other men who have no authority. And these two cases he instances in, differ little from those above mentioned, to be destructive to governments, only that he has omitted the principle from which his doctrine flows; and that is, the breach of trust, in not preserving the form of government agreed on, and in not intending the end of government itself, which is the public good and preservation of property. When a king has dethroned himself, and put himself in a state of war with his people, what shall hinder them from prosecuting him who is no king, as they would any other man, who has put himself into a state of war with them; Barclay, and those of his opinion, would do well to tell us. This farther I desire may be taken notice of out of Barclay, that he says, “The mischief that is designed them, the people may prevent before it be done:” whereby he allows resistance when tyranny is but in design. “Such designs as these,” says he, “when any king harbours in his thoughts and seriously promotes, he immediately gives up all care and thought of the commonwealth;” so that, according to him, the neglect of the public good is to be taken as an evidence of such design, or at least for a sufficient cause of resistance. And the reason of all, he gives in these words, “Because he betrayed or forced his people, whose liberty he ought carefully to have preserved.” What he adds, into the power and dominion of a foreign nation, signifies nothing, the fault and forfeiture lying in the loss of their liberty, which he ought to have preserved, and not in any distinction of the persons to whose dominion they were subjected. The people’s right is equally invaded, and their liberty lost, whether they are made slaves to any of their own, or a foreign nation; and in this lies the injury, and against this only they have the right of defence. And there are instances to be found in all countries, which shew, that it is not the change of nations in the persons of their governors, but the change of government, that gives the offence. Bilson, a bishop of our church, and a great stickler for the power and prerogative of princes, does, if I mistake not, in his treatise of Christian subjection, acknowledge, that princes may forfeit their power, and their title to the obedience of their subjects; and if there needed authority in a case where reason is so plain, I could send my reader to Bracton, Fortescue, and the author of The Mirrour, and others, writers that cannot be suspected to be ignorant of our government, or enemies to it. But I thought Hooker alone might be enough to satisfy those men, who relying on him for their ecclesiastical polity, are by a strange fate carried to deny those principles upon which he builds it. Whether they are herein made the tools of cunninger workmen, to pull down their own fabric, they were best look. This I am sure, their civil policy is so new, so dangerous, and so destructive to both rulers and people, that as former ages never could bear the broaching of it; so it may be hoped, those to come, redeemed from the impositions of these Egyptian under-task-masters, will abhor the memory of such servile flatterers, who, whilst it seemed to serve their turn, resolved all government into absolute tyranny, and would have all men born to, what their mean souls fitted them for, slavery.

The brute fact is that the history of kings and other rulers includes cases of rulers who so flagrantly violated their trust and so powerfully damaged the welfare of those they ruled, that it is hard for any serious scholar to deny that there are some cases where it is appropriate to rise up against a ruler, or individual who was a ruler at one time. Thus, John Locke’s doctrine that “Bad Rulers May Be Removed” is different from other views in degree and where the line is drawn, not different in kind.

Closely related to the question of where the line should be drawn that rulers step over at their peril is the question of who can rightfully judge that a ruler has stepped over that line. That is the subject of the following sections, that I will discuss in a couple of weeks.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

First Latin passage from Barclay: “Quod siquis dicat, Ergone populus tyrannicæ crudelitati & furori jugulum semper præbebit? Ergone multitudo civitates suas fame, ferro, & flammâ vastari, seque, conjuges, & liberos fortunæ ludibrio & tyranni libidini exponi, inque omnia vitæ pericula omnesque miserias & molestias à rege deduci patientur? Num illis quod omni animantium generi est à naturâ tributum, denegari debet, ut sc. vim vi repellant, seseq; ab injuriâ tueantur? Huic breviter responsum sit, Populo universo negari defensionem, quæ juris naturalis est, neque ultionem quæ præter naturam est adversus regem concedi debere. Quapropter si rex non in singulares tantum personas aliquot privatum odium exerceat, sed corpus etiam reipublicæ, cujus ipse caput est, i. e. totum populum, vel insignem aliquam ejus partem immani & intolerandâ sævitiâ seu tyrannide divexet; populo, quidem hoc casu resistendi ac tuendi se ab injuriâ potestas competit, sed tuendi se tantum, non enim in principem invadendi: & restituendæ injuriæ illatæ, non recedendi à debitâ reverentiâ propter acceptam injuriam. Præsentem denique impetum propulsandi non vim præteritam ulciscenti jus habet. Horum enim alterum à naturâ est, ut vitam scilicet corpusque tueamur. Alterum verò contra naturam, ut inferior de superiori supplicium sumat. Quod itaque populus malum, antequam factum sit, impedire potest, ne fiat, id postquam factum est, in regem authorem sceleris vindicare non potest: populus igitur hoc ampliùs quàm privatus quispiam habet: quod huic, vel ipsis adversariis judicibus, excepto Buchanano, nullum nisi in patientia remedium superest. Cùm ille si intolerabilis tyrannus est (modicum enim ferre omnino debet) resistere cum reverentiâ possit,” Barclay contra Monarchom. l. iii. c. 8.

Second Latin passage from Barclay: “Quid ergo, nulline casus incidere possunt quibus populo sese erigere atque in regem impotentius dominantem arma capere & invadere jure suo suâque authoritate liceat? Nulli certe quamdiu rex manet. Semper enim ex divinis id obstat, Regem honorificato; & qui potestati resistit, Dei ordinationi resistit: non aliàs igitur in eum populo potestas est quam si id committat propter quod ipso jure rex esse desinat. Tunc enim se ipse principatu exuit atque in privatis constituit liber: hoc modo populus & superior efficitur, reverso ad eum sc. jure illo quod ante regem inauguratum in interregno habuit. At sunt paucorum generum commissa ejusmodi quæ hunc effectum pariunt. At ego cum plurima animo perlustrem, duo tantum invenio, duos, inquam, casus quibus rex ipso facto ex rege non regem se facit & omni honore & dignitate regali atque in subditos potestate destituit; quorum etiam meminit Winzerus. Horum unus est, Si regnum disperdat, quemadmodum de Nerone fertur, quod is nempe senatum populumque Romanum, atque adeo urbem ipsam ferro flammaque vastare, ac novas sibi sedes quærere decrevisset. Et de Caligula, quod palam denunciarit se neque civem neque principem senatui amplius fore, inque animo habuerit interempto utriusque ordinis electissimo quoque Alexandriam commigrare, ac ut populum uno ictu interimeret, unam ei cervicem optavit. Talia cum rex aliquis meditatur & molitur serio, omnem regnandi curam & animum ilico abjicit, ac proinde imperium in subditos amittit, ut dominus servi pro derelicto habiti dominium.

§. 236. “Alter casus est, Si rex in alicujus clientelam se contulit, ac regnum quod liberum à majoribus & populo traditum accepit, alienæ ditioni mancipavit. Nam tunc quamvis forte non eâ mente id agit populo plane ut incommodet: tamen quia quod præcipuum est regiæ dignitatis amisit, ut summus scilicet in regno secundum Deum sit, & solo Deo inferior, atque populum etiam totum ignorantem vel invitum, cujus libertatem sartam & tectam conservare debuit, in alterius gentis ditionem & potestatem dedidit; hâc velut quadam regni ab alienatione effecit, ut nec quod ipse in regno imperium habuit retineat, ne in eum cui collatum voluit, juris quicquam transferat; atque ita eo facto liberum jam & suæ potestatis populum relinquit, cujus rei exemplum unum annales Scotici suppeditant.” Barclay contra Monarchom. l. iii. c. 16.

New Evidence on the Genetics of Homosexuality

Since I moved to the University of Colorado Boulder in the Summer of 2016, I have added social science genetics to my research portfolio. Recently I was made a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado Boulder. In the last three years, I have been impressed with the quality of the research being done in this area. Social science genetics suffered its replication crisis early compared to other areas of social science—the era of the “candidate gene study” in which testing out many genes led to de facto p-hacking. Since then, sample sizes for human genetics data have become large enough that one can get significant results even after careful correction for multiple hypothesis testing across a huge number of genetic variants.

The basic finding for most traits of interest to social scientists is that a large number of genes each has a tiny effect. So there typically isn’t a gene for anything but a few diseases. In the absence of a single determinative gene, there are two key things that can be done: (a) look at what kinds of genes are related to a particular trait, how they compare to the genes for other traits, and how great an R-squared genes could in principle get to and (b) construct linear combinations of genes (called “polygenic scores”) that can predict the trait—always with a lower R-squared than is possible in principle because the weights in the linear combination have estimation error.

The August 30, 2019 issue of Science includes an article “Large-scale GWAS reveals insights into the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior” looking at the genetics of homosexuality in this careful way. The authors were able to use data on almost half a million individuals. Here is their “Structured Abstract”:

INTRODUCTION

Across human societies and in both sexes, some 2 to 10% of individuals report engaging in sex with same-sex partners, either exclusively or in addition to sex with opposite-sex partners. Twin and family studies have shown that same-sex sexual behavior is partly genetically influenced, but previous searches for the specific genes involved have been underpowered to detect effect sizes realistic for complex traits.

RATIONALE

For the first time, new large-scale datasets afford sufficient statistical power to identify genetic variants associated with same-sex sexual behavior (ever versus never had a same-sex partner), estimate the proportion of variation in the trait accounted for by all variants in aggregate, estimate the genetic correlation of same-sex sexual behavior with other traits, and probe the biology and complexity of the trait. To these ends, we performed genome-wide association discovery analyses on 477,522 individuals from the United Kingdom and United States, replication analyses in 15,142 individuals from the United States and Sweden, and follow-up analyses using different aspects of sexual preference.

All quotations in this post are from “Large-scale GWAS reveals insights into the genetic architecture of same-sex sexual behavior.

Unsurprisingly, there is no “gay gene,” but instead many, many genes that each has a small effect on the likelihood of having had at least one same-sex sex partner:

The SNPs that reached genome-wide significance had very small effects (odds ratios ~1.1) (table S7). For example, in the UK Biobank, males with a GT genotype at the rs34730029 locus had 0.4% higher prevalence of same-sex sexual behavior than those with a TT genotype (4.0 versus 3.6%). Nevertheless, the contribution of all measured common SNPs in aggregate (SNP-based heritability) was estimated to be 8 to 25% (95% CIs [Confidence Intervals], 5 to 30%) of variation in female and male same-sex sexual behavior, in which the range reflects differing estimates by using different analysis methods or prevalence assumptions … same-sex sexual behavior, like most complex human traits, is influenced by the small, additive effects of very many genetic variants, most of which cannot be detected at the current sample size (22). Consistent with this interpretation, we show that the contribution of each chromosome to heritability is broadly proportional to its size (fig. S3) (14). In contrast to linkage studies that found substantial association of sexual orientation with variants on the X-chromosome (8, 23), we found no excess of signal (and no individual genome-wide significant loci) on the X-chromosome (fig. S4).

Homosexuality is still rare enough that a sample of half a million or so is still not enough to get precise estimates of just what fraction of the variation in homosexual behavior could in principle be predicted by genes. For linear combinations of common genes, the key quotation from above is:

… the contribution of all measured common SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms] in aggregate (SNP-based heritability) was estimated to be 8 to 25% (95% CIs, 5 to 30%) of variation.

Based on a wider ranges of genetic variation, the key quotation is as follows:

By modeling the correspondence of relatedness among individuals and the similarity of their sexual behavior, we estimated broad-sense heritability—the percentage of variation in a trait attributable to genetic variation—at 32.4% [95% confidence intervals (CIs), 10.6 to 54.3] (table S4). This estimate is consistent with previous estimates from smaller twin studies (7).

In any case, don’t fall into the fallacy that “genetic” means “unmodifiable” and “environmental” means “modifiable.” Many things that are environmental are hard to modify because it is hard to modify the environment, while many things that are genetic are easy to modify. For example, nearsightedness can easily be corrected by eyeglasses and contact lenses. In the case of homosexuality, there have been, in effect many messily conducted experiments in modifying homosexuality that directly show that in many, many cases it is essentially impossible to modify. Genetic evidence does not speak directly to “modifiability.” In other words, you can’t use genetic evidence to say whether something is a “choice” or not.

The notion that genetic effects are hardwired physical effects is not always on track. Genetics for complex traits often operate through an effect on people’s preferences. That doesn’t mean those preferences are a small thing. Except to protect other people, it is cruel to block the expression of people’s preferences. For example, whether to be an economist or not is clearly a choice, but it would both make some of us miserable and get in the way of important contributions to the world if it were made illegal or socially disfavored to be an economist. Inhibitions to freedom, whether legal or social, need strong justification in reducing harm to others.

Also, there can be physical effects that are not genetic that are at least as hardwired as physical effects. Men who have more older brothers are more likely to be gay. (See the Wikipedia article “Fraternal birth order and male sexual orientation.”) People theorize this might be due to maternal immune-system reactions to previous male fetuses.

Surprises in the Genetic Data

There are several important findings in the genetic data that will surprise some and confirm the prior beliefs of others. First, having had at least one same-sex sexual partner seems to be a different thing for men than for women:

To assess differences in effects between females and males, we also performed sex-specific analyses. These results suggested only a partially shared genetic architecture across the sexes; the across-sex genetic correlation was 0.63 (95% CIs, 0.48 to 0.78) (table S9). This is noteworthy given that most other studied traits show much higher across-sex genetic correlations, often close to 1 (1821).

A 63% correlation between the genetic predictor for men having had a same-sex sexual partner and for women having had a same-sex sexual partner is still a substantial correlation, but that means there are important differences.

Second, having had at least one as opposed to no same-sex sexual partners is not the same thing as having predominantly same-sex partners:

To maximize our sample size and increase the power to detect SNP associations, we defined our primary phenotype as ever or never having had a same sex partner. … the genetic effects that differentiate heterosexual from same-sex sexual behavior are not the same as those that differ among nonheterosexuals with lower versus higher proportions of same-sex partners. This finding suggests that on the genetic level, there is no single dimension from opposite-sex to same-sex preference. The existence of such a dimension, in which the more someone is attracted to the same-sex the less they are attracted to the opposite-sex, is the premise of the Kinsey scale (39), a research tool ubiquitously used to measure sexual orientation. Another measure, the Klein Grid (40), retains the same premise but separately measures sexual attraction, behavior, fantasies, and identification (as well as nonsexual preferences); however, we found that these sexual measures are influenced by similar genetic factors. Overall, our findings suggest that the most popular measures are based on a misconception of the underlying structure of sexual orientation and may need to be rethought. In particular, using separate measures of attraction to the opposite sex and attraction to the same sex, such as in the Sell Assessment of Sexual Orientation (41), would remove the assumption that these variables are perfectly inversely related and would enable more nuanced exploration of the full diversity of sexual orientation, including bisexuality and asexuality.’’

In other words, the authors suggest a model with two parameters: attraction to men and attraction to women, with some people attracted to both, some people only attracted to men or only to women, and some people attracted to neither.

Scientifically, one of the interesting questions is how genes that increase the probability of homosexual behavior have survived in the gene pool. The authors mention this issue and its importance, but do not suggest any resolution:

We observed in the UK Biobank that individuals who reported same-sex sexual behavior had on average fewer offspring than those of individuals who engaged exclusively in heterosexual behavior, even for individuals reporting only a minority of same-sex partners (Fig. 1B). This reduction in number of children is comparable with or greater than for other traits that have been linked to lower fertility rates (fig. S1) (14). This reproductive deficit raises questions about the evolutionary maintenance of the trait, but we do not address these here.

Conclusion

Before solid evidence about the genetics of homosexuality was available, many people talked as if the genetics of homosexuality could usefully inform how gays should be treated. But it doesn’t. What the genetics of homosexuality does do is help us to appreciate the complexity of sexual attraction.


John Locke on Peace through Surrender to Tyranny


Overthrowing tyrants is a public good with much greater social benefit than private benefit. Hence, when there is genuine tyranny, it is a serious problem that individuals, encouraged by their family and friends, will put the private benefit of being safe from reprisals by a tyrant over the public benefit of helping to overthrow the tyrant.

But what about the cost to everyone of a civil war to overthrow a tyrant? Typically, those who actively work to overthrow a tyrant bear a disproportionate share of the direct cost of a civil war relative to their share in the benefits from a better government. And in their altruistic concerns, emotionally mature opponents of tyranny will be likely to weight the costs on others of a civil war fairly against the benefits of a better government.

It may be that some individuals gain a huge private benefit of perceived glory or identity confirmation from opposing a tyrant, and so may not strike the right balance. But a more common criticism those opposing a tyrant may face is that their altruism toward strangers is unusually strong compared to their altruism towards friends and family members who may also suffer reprisals from the tyrant.

In any case, except for selfish reasons (when one is, oneself one of the family and friends of the opponent to tyranny), it seems like only rare situations would justify discouraging someone from fighting against tyranny, even though there is likely to be collateral damage. The reason is that most opponents to tyranny do care about collateral damage and try to weigh the costs of collateral damage against the benefits of a better government.

Where those who style themselves as opponents to tyranny don’t seem to care much about collateral damage—as when they send suicide bombers to kill civilians—then one should suspect they have other motives than simply opposing tyranny.

John Locke does not discuss these tradeoffs in quite so much depth, but in Sections 228 and 229 of Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government” of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, he does speak to the basic justice of fighting against tyranny even if there will be some collateral damage—but speaks of collateral damage in ways that are not very vivid: “destructive to the peace of the world,” “If any mischief come in such cases,” “inconveniences.” In this way, I think John Locke tries to make the issue of collateral damage look smaller than it really is. By contrast, John Locke appropriately speaks very powerfully of the benefits of overthrowing a tyrant:

§. 228. But if they, who say it lays a foundation for rebellion, mean that it may occasion civil wars, or intestine broils, to tell the people they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties, and may oppose the unlawful violence of those who were their magistrates, when they invade their properties contrary to the trust put in them; and that therefore this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world: they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed. If any mischief come in such cases, it is not to be charged upon him who defends his own right, but on him that invades his neighbours. If the innocent honest man must quietly quit all he has, for peace sake, to him who will lay violent hands upon it, I desire it may be considered, what a kind of peace there will be in the world, which consists only in violence and rapine; and which is to be maintained only for the benefit of robbers and oppressors. Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf? Polyphemus’s den gives us a perfect pattern of such a peace, and such a government, wherein Ulysses and his companions had nothing to do, but quietly to suffer themselves to be devoured. And no doubt Ulysses, who was a prudent man, preached up passive obedience, and exhorted them to a quiet submission, by representing to them of what concernment peace was to mankind; and by shewing the inconveniences might happen, if they should offer to resist Polyphemus, who had now the power over them.

§. 229. The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should be always exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed, when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation of the properties of their people?

One of the interesting things John Locke is doing is to try to enlist a sense of honor and anger as motivations to oppose tyranny:

  • … they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.

  • If any mischief come in such cases, it is not to be charged upon him who defends his own right, but on him that invades his neighbours.

  • If the innocent honest man must quietly quit all he has, for peace sake, to him who will lay violent hands upon it, I desire it may be considered, what a kind of peace there will be in the world, which consists only in violence and rapine; and which is to be maintained only for the benefit of robbers and oppressors.

  • Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?

  • … which is best for mankind, that the people should be always exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed …

The thing I worry about most is people who don’t really know what the situation is in a nation and think they are nobly opposing tyranny, when given the facts on the ground they are doing something else. This is a manageable problem, but gets worse when there are people actively trying to deceive others into imagining a tyranny that is not there. (Of course, tyrants try to do the opposite: to get people to think there is not tyranny when there is.)

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

On Being a Copy of Someone's Mind

Robin Hanson’s book The Age of Em is a fascinating and important book applying economic theory to analyzing a dramatic technological possibility in the future: the possibility that before we truly understand the human mind and before artificial intelligence built up from first principles can match human intelligence, we might be able to make functional, faithful, software emulations of the workings of particular human brains. Robin gives these emulations the affectionate nickname “ems.”

There is much too much in The Age of Em to talk about to fit into a single blog post. Today I will address only one issue: if a copy of your own mind is made into an em, what is the experience like once that em is started up?

At one level the answer is easy. The em that is a copy of you will act just like you and say and do the same kinds of things you would say and do if you suddenly found yourself a bit of software in a virtual world but otherwise were yourself.

As I say in “On the Effability of the Ineffable,” the mysteries we talk about are not really ineffable, because we are talking about them! (Ineffable: Beyond expression; indescribable or unspeakable.) An em that is a copy of your mind will talk about things in exactly the way you do. And what the em says and does, or readings of its brain emulating activity will be the only access anyone else has to what it is like to be that em, just as what you say and so and readings of your brain activity are the only access anyone else has to what it is like to be you.

There are two obviously important cases. (I’d be glad to hear about others.) One is if dualism is true. If there is a spirit or soul inside of you that does the experiencing, then what the experience of an em is like depends on whether ems get to have a spirit or soul or not. That then depends on facts about what the gods or natural processes that grant or produce spirits or souls do.

The other obviously important case is if our experience comes from the interactions of particles and fields that are either now or someday will be known to physics, none of which individually has any more of spirit or soul than any other particle or field. In that case, it is hard to see why ems would not experience things. Since—if they are truly faithful emulations—they would speak and act as if they are experience things at exactly the same depth as human beings, it is also hard to see why they wouldn’t be experiencing things in the same way as human beings.

But is an em that is an emulation of your brain more like another human being who is eerily like you, or more like a you? On the assumption that experience comes from particles and fields known to physics (or of the same sort as those known to physics now), and that the emulation is truly faithful, there is nothing hidden. An em that is a copy of you will feel that it is a you. Of course, if you consented to the copying process, an em that is a copy of you will have that memory, which is likely to make it aware that there is now more than one of you. But that does NOT make it not-you.

You might object that the lack of physical continuity makes the em copy of you not-you. But our sense of physical continuity with our past selves is largely an illusion. There is substantial turnover in the particular particles in us. Similarity of memory—memory now being a superset of memory earlier, minus some forgetting—is the main thing that makes me think I am the same person as a particular human being earlier in time.

Noah Smith’s religion guest post “You Are Already in the Afterlife” makes this point nicely: we continue to become different than we were before, yet consider ourselves the same person. ]

Why should I consider myself the same person as the Miles Kimball twenty years ago, who in many ways was very different in characteristics, but think an em copied from me right now and started up a minute from now, who is much more similar to me, is a different person?

Just as important, if I seem to have a continuity of conscious experience despite the fact that the particles making me up keep changing, there is no reason to deny that there is a continuity of conscious experience from me to the em that is a copy of me. The weird thing is that with such copying, there would be several different continuities of conscious experience. One line of conscious experience that ended up outside any computer and another line of conscious experience that ended up inside a computer. (Note that distance in time is not a big issue: we are used to what counts as a “continuity of consciousness” having a sleep state intervening. Being in “suspended animation” as a recorded computer state is less of an interruption than a sleep period, because a sleep period changes the state more.)

In the technological environment Robin and I are considering, after the copying event these two lines of conscious experience are isolated from one another as any two human beings are mentally isolated from one another. But these two consciousnesses that don’t have the same experience after the split are both me, with a full experience of continuity of consciousness from the past me. If one of these consciousnesses ends permanently, then one me ends but the other me continues. It is possible to both die and not die.

The fact that there can be many lines of subjectively continuous consciousness that are all me may seem strange, but it may be happening all the time anyway given the implication of quantum equations taken at face value that all kinds of quantum possibilities all happen. (This is the “Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.”) Indeed, although one type of splitting originates in macroscopic events and the other type of splitting originates in picoscopic events or smaller, they have the same qualitative description as things that have all the same observable consequences of real splitting with all paths continuing, even if one wants to deny that it is real splitting with all paths continuing. There is complete observational equivalence.

Note that, along the lines of what I said in “On the Effability of the Ineffable,” if there is any way I can even think to myself something ineffable, that is enough brain activity that it could, in principle, be revealed to someone else. So—short of hardcore dualism with a spirit or soul—it is hard to see what distinctive magic there could be to the “true me” to distinguish it as me and the copy of me as not-me. Is being composed largely of water really the magic that makes it the real me?

And my problem with hardcore dualism is this:

  1. If a spirit or soul influences any of my decisions, then it has enough effect on particles in the brain that it should be detectable by physics with the sensitivity of instruments we have now.

  2. If a spirit or soul is affected by the body but does not itself have any effect on the body (Epiphenomenalism), then it is not through any causality from that spirit or soul the spirit or soul that we talk about because it has no causal pathway to move our mouths. God might make our bodies so they talk about our epiphenominal spirits or souls. But our spirits or souls in this case are not talking about themselves on their own behalf.

Conclusion. The bottom line is that I think an emulation of my brain would have a genuine continuity of consciousness with me as me. There would be a weirdness of there being more than one of me, or one me that ends and another me that continues, but that would be “just the way it is.”

Don’t miss these related posts:

John Locke: If Rebellion is a Sin, It is a Sin Committed Most Often by Those in Power

Who is the rebel? The Empire or the Rebellion? John Locke says it is the Empire.    Image source   .

Who is the rebel? The Empire or the Rebellion? John Locke says it is the Empire. Image source.

In Sections 223-227 of Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government” of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, John Locke is answering the objection that his doctrine “lays a ferment for frequent rebellion.” John Locke’s three answers are:

  1. People don’t need Lockean doctrine in order to rise up. They would rise up anyway if things are really bad.

  2. People don’t rise up over small things.

  3. Who is the real rebel? Those overthrowing tyrants, or those who rebel against natural law by becoming tyrants?

On the 2d answer, see “Governments Long Established Should Not—and to a Good Approximation Will Not—Be Changed for Light and Transient Causes.”

As for the 1st answer, in Section 224, John Locke writes:

§. 224. But it will be said, this hypothesis lays a ferment for frequent rebellion. To which I answer,

First, No more than any other hypothesis: for when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power, cry up their governors, as much as you will, for sons of Jupiter; let them be sacred and divine, descended, or authorized from heaven: give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The people generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them. They will wish, and seek for the opportunity, which in the change, weakness and accidents of human affairs, seldom delays long to offer itself. He must have lived but a little while in the world, who has not seen examples of this in his time: and he must have read very little, who cannot produce examples of it in all sorts of governments in the world.

As for the 3d answer, here is how John Locke puts his challenge “Who is the real rebel? The tyrant or those rising up to restore the social contract?"

§. 226. Thirdly, I answer, that this doctrine of a power in the people of providing for their safety, anew, by a new legislative, when their legislators have acted contrary to their trust, by invading their property, is the best fence against rebellion, and the probablest means to hinder it: for rebellion being an opposition, not to persons, but authority, which is founded only in the constitutions and laws of the government; those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justify their violation of them, are truly and properly rebels: for when men, by entering into society and civil government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretence they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; the properest way to prevent the evil, is to shew them the danger and injustice of it, who are under the greatest temptation to run into it.

§. 227. In both the forementioned cases, when either the legislative is changed, or the legislators act contrary to the end for which they were constituted; those who are guilty are guilty of rebellion: for if any one by force takes away the established legislative of any society, and the laws by them made, pursuant to their trust, he thereby takes away the umpirage, which every one had consented to, for a peaceable decision of all their controversies, and a bar to the state of war amongst them. They, who remove, or change, the legislative, take away this decisive power, which nobody can have, but by the appointment and consent of the people; and so destroying the authority which the people did, and nobody else can set up, and introducing a power which the people hath not authorized, they actually introduce a state of war, which is that of force without authority: and thus, by removing the legislative established by the society, (in whose decisions the people acquiesced and united, as to that of their own will) they untie the knot, and expose the people anew to the state of war. And if those, who by force take away the legislative, are rebels, the legislators themselves, as has been shewn, can be no less esteemed so; when they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties, shall by force invade and endeavour to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes, rebels.

I consider the heart of these two sections to be this passage from Section 226:

… men, by entering into society and civil government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves, those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels: which they who are in power, (by the pretence they have to authority, the temptation of force they have in their hands, and the flattery of those about them) being likeliest to do; …

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

On the Effability of the Ineffable

Ineffable: Beyond expression; indescribable or unspeakable.

There is a paradox in the use of the word “ineffable”: by saying that something cannot be described, the word “ineffable” often points to a common human experience—and thereby communicates. And this is not so different from ordinary words. Many ordinary words are only understandable because of the common human experience and common human nature that we share. (That is the theme of my Linguistics Master’s Thesis. See “Miles's Linguistics Master's Thesis: The Later Wittgenstein, Roman Jakobson and Charles Saunders Peirce.”) Similarly, things that are called “ineffable,” like the pleasure of a sunset, or a mystical experience in a religious context that regularly produces such mystical experiences in coreligionists, or consciousness, are understandable to the many people who share those experiences due to their human nature. (Don’t miss my sermon “The Mystery of Consciousness.”)

One of the big jobs of the Humanities is precisely to express what had previously been ineffable—to be able to point to or evoke feelings and thereby given them a name, even if the name is the length of a novel.

The subject matter of the Humanities is also reachable by science. If anything can be expressed in words or in a painting or in music, then multimedia surveys can ask about it. And once a survey can ask about it, it can be quantified. A good thing, too! Because continuing to improve human welfare at some point involves helping people grab hold of more of the wondrous intangible things that they want. I am proud to be heavily involved in research in the economics of happiness—which is really not just about happiness alone, but about all the wondrous and the quotidian, intangible and tangible things people want.

Other Related Posts:

Governments Long Established Should Not—and to a Good Approximation Will Not—Be Changed for Light and Transient Causes

A key passage of the Declaration of Independence is:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

In this passage, those who had a hand in crafting the Declaration of Independence show their knowledge of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government. In Chapter XIX, sections 223-225, John Locke writes:

§. 223. To this perhaps it will be said, that the people being ignorant, and always discontented, to lay the foundation of government in the unsteady opinion and uncertain humour of the people, is to expose it to certain ruin; and no government will be able long to subsist, if the people may set up a new legislative, whenever they take offence at the old one. To this I answer, Quite the contrary. People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest. They are hardly to be prevailed with to amend the acknowledged faults in the frame they have been accustomed to. And if there be any original defects, or adventitious ones introduced by time, or corruption; it is not an easy thing to be changed, even when all the world sees there is an opportunity for it. This slowness and aversion in the people to quit their old constitutions, has, in the many revolutions which have been seen in this kingdom, in this and former ages, still kept us to, or, after some interval of fruitless attempts, still brought us back again to our old legislative of king, lords and commons: and whatever provocations have made the crown be taken from some of our princes heads, they never carried the people so far as to place it in another line.

§. 224. But it will be said, this hypothesis lays a ferment for frequent rebellion. To which I answer, 19 First, No more than any other hypothesis: for when the people are made miserable, and find themselves exposed to the ill usage of arbitrary power, cry up their governors, as much as you will, for sons of Jupiter; let them be sacred and divine, descended, or authorized from heaven: give them out for whom or what you please, the same will happen. The people generally ill treated, and contrary to right, will be ready upon any occasion to ease themselves of a burden that sits heavy upon them. They will wish, and seek for the opportunity, which in the change, weakness and accidents of human affairs, seldom delays long to offer itself. He must have lived but a little while in the world, who has not seen examples of this in his time: and he must have read very little, who cannot produce examples of it in all sorts of governments in the world.

§. 225. Secondly, I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty, will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered at, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniences being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.

On a much larger scale, this claim is like the claim that for every person who complains about a product, there are many, many other people who felt the same way, but felt it was too much trouble or too scary to lodge a complaint. Dissatisfaction with a government passes through a strong filter before any revolution comes out.

We live in a time when new political forces are arising both on the right and on the left. One might ask “Is this just polarization, or has our government genuinely heaped a long train of abuses on the American people that partisans interpret in different ways?” I tend to thing the answer is still that it is just polarization. What the right complains about is quite different from what the left complains about. And in US presidential elections, the electorate seems close to evenly divided in complaining about very different things. So I don’t think it is time to change the US government in any big way. Regular elections should give the American people a chance to change what is wrong with government decisions if they can agree on which government decisions are wrong.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Can Religion Reduce Suicide?

I was quite interested to read the scientific article “Association Between Religious Service Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women,” by Tyler J. VanderWeele, Shanshan Li, Alexander C. Tsai and Ichiro Kawachi. I was wondering by what magic they were hoping to get the causal effect of religious attendance on suicide from the non-experimental data in the Nurse’s Health Study. (I wrote about dietary evidence in the Nurse’s Health Study and the statistical issues in interpreting that evidence in “Hints for Healthy Eating from the Nurse's Health Study.”)

It would have been interesting to see the regression coefficient for a change in religious attendance. Unfortunately, it seems they didn’t look at that, but rather “controlled” for past religious attendance. “Controlling” for a variable by including it in a regression isn’t really controlling for what that variable is intended to measure or is proxying for when that variable is measured with error relative to what it is proxying for. It is only partially controlling. Whether or not one is “controlling” for variables can only be verified when one explicitly thinks through measurement error issues. And “controlling” for variables is seldom achieved without thinking through measurement error issues. (The advantage of using the first difference of religious attendance as a right-hand-side variable is that the first difference of religious attendance should measure the true change in whatever religious attendance is intended as a proxy, plus error. The error should bias the coefficient toward zero, but is less likely to change the sign and statistical significance of the sign of the coefficient.)

But the biggest issue with the paper lies in a different direction. They recognize the issue and try to parry it in these passages:

For an unmeasured confounder to explain the HR estimate of 0.16 (95% CI, 0.06-0.46), the unmeasured confounder would have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by 12-fold above and beyond the measured confounders; weaker confounding would not suffice. To bring the estimate’s upper confidence limit of 0.46 above 1.0, the unmeasured confounder would still have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by 3.7-fold above and beyond the measured confounders.

Our study made use of observational data. Although we adjusted for major confounders regarding the association between religious service attendance and suicide, the results may still be subject to unmeasured confounding by personality, impulsivity, feelings of hopelessness, or other cognitive factors. However, in sensitivity analysis, for an unmeasured confounder to explain the effect of religious service attendance on suicide, it would have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by greater than 10-fold above and beyond the measured covariates. Such substantial confounding by unmeasured factors seems unlikely, given adjustment for an extensive set of covariates and the known risk factor associations for suicide.

Unlike the authors, it is not hard for me to think of a very powerful potential confounder. Having one’s life be a mess could easily both reduce religious attendance powerfully and powerfully increase the probability of suicide. That is a story in which there wouldn’t have to be any causal effect of religious attendance on suicide at all.

Note that one’s life being a mess could both lead to more suicide and reduce any kind of social engagement and community support. So this is a problem not just for showing that religiosity can reduce suicide—which it might through social support and community—but for showing that any other kind of social support and community reduces suicide.

Even if something religious is causally reducing suicide, it definitely doesn’t have to be religious attendance. Anything correlated with religious attendance could also yield the evidence they point to. To see this point, suppose someone very much wanted to attend church, but was geographically too far away to make it feasible. One could easily imagine that if there are religious forces that reduce suicide, many of them might still be operative. Indeed, the authors recognize that it might be a matter of religious belief that both helps lead to religious attendance and reduces suicide:

Although religious service attendance has commonly been used in previous published studies and tends to be the strongest religious predictor of health, religiosity is multidimensional, and different aspects of religion and spirituality may therefore be differently associated with suicide. Data on religious service attendance were collected through a self-reported questionnaire and, moreover, may be subject to measurement error and possible overreporting, although the relative ordering of frequency might still be preserved. Further research could examine other religious practices, mindfulness practices, other aspects of spirituality and religiosity, other race/ethnic and demographic groups, and other forms of social participation.

In the whole paper, the most persuasive evidence about the effect of religiosity on suicide is that religious attendance seemed to have a bigger proportional effect on Catholics than on Protestants. The best I can come up with as confounders for this results are

  1. Relative to Protestant teaching, Catholic teaching doesn’t stop people from committing suicide, but makes people underreport suicide more if they are a believing and attending Catholic. And those who provide or withhold crucial evidence on cause of death often have similar religious beliefs and attendance to the one who died. This could in principle be addressed by looking at differences between the attendance of the one who died versus the attendance of the ones who provided or withheld crucial evidence about the cause of death.

  2. Relative to Protestant teaching, Catholic teaching makes people especially unwilling to attend when their lives are in a mess.

Despite these possible stories (which may or may not be true and may or may not have any oomph to them), the fact that the differential content of Catholicism vs. Protestantism seems to matter is the strongest evidence they have that there is causality running from religiosity to reduced suicide.

I would love to see a paper that tried to get identification to test the effect of church attendance on suicide in the typical way economists try to get identification. For example, do people who live further from the nearest church commit suicide more often? That might be a doable research project. And one could do some good placebo tests by running regressions with closeness to community centers, or stores or bars as well as the regressions on closeness to a church.

For another post at the intersection of religion and statistics, don’t miss “Who Leaves Mormonism?

John Locke: Bad Rulers May Be Removed

One of the longest sections in John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, is section 222, in the final chapter: XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government.” In reading this, I sense his righteous anger at bad rulers. In the title of this post, it was hard to be as emphatic as he is. “Bad Rulers May Be Removed. Period.” might say it better.

I consider this sentiment to be something deeply ingrained into the human heart by evolution. Our cousins the chimpanzees feel it too, as you can see by following the link to the video shown above. I am in full agreement with John Locke in what he says in Section 222—not only with the substance of what he says, but also with the passion with which he says it:

§. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust, when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly pre-engages the electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has by solicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise, won to his designs; and employs them to bring in such, who have promised beforehand what to vote, and what to enact. Thus to regulate candidates and electors, and new-model the ways of election, what is it but to cut up the government by the roots, and poison the very fountain of public security? for the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the commonwealth, and the public good should upon examination, and mature debate, be judged to require. This, those who give their votes before they hear the debate, and have weighed the reasons on all sides, are not capable of doing. To prepare such an assembly as this, and endeavour to set up the declared abettors of his own will, for the true representatives of the people, and the law-makers of the society, is certainly as great a breach of trust, and as perfect a declaration of a design to subvert the government, as is possible to be met with. To which, if one shall add rewards and punishments visibly employed to the same end, and all the arts of perverted law made use of to take off and destroy all that stand in the way of such a design, and will not comply and consent to betray the liberties of their country, it will be past doubt what is doing. What power they ought to have in the society, who thus employ it contrary to the trust went along with it in its first institution, is easy to determine; and one cannot but see, that he, who has once attempted any such thing as this, cannot any longer be trusted.

I should say that the principle that bad rulers can be removed is, I believe, satisfied relatively well by our periodic elections in the US: our elections have the power to sweep out the bulk of our rulers within a period of six years.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

How Mormon Scripture Declares the US Constitution to be the Work of God

There are many interesting features of Mormonism as a result of its having writings or “scripture” considered the “word of God” produced by Joseph Smith (the preeminent founder of Mormonism) in the first half of the 19th century in America. One is that Mormon beliefs are 100% consistent with all of the scientific principles generally known by 1844 when Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. (And indeed, it is my belief that if Joseph Smith had not been murdered, and had lived to see the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Joseph would have incorporated evolution much more fully into Mormonism.)

Another interesting feature of Mormonism due to its origin in the first half of the 19th century in America is that the word of God according to Mormonism declares that the Constitution of the United States had a divine origin. The key passage is Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80, in which Joseph Smith reports God saying this:

77 According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;

78 That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.

79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

80 And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

In addition to this that Joseph Smith reported as being directly the word of God, Joseph Smith said, according to the journal of James Burgess (and similar things according to others):

… the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.

This is an idea that could easily be an important inspiration and motivation for many Mormon politicians; ideas that get into one’s head at an early age can be very powerful emotionally. I know this idea had an effect on me when I was a young Mormon.

Although not all the effects of this Mormon belief that the Constitution is divinely ordained and that the Constitution needs to be tended and defended are benign, on the whole I think it is quite helpful that a subgroup of the American population take the US Constitution so seriously.


Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Don’t miss these guest posts on Mormonism by my brother Chris Kimball:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

The People Have the Right to Erect a New Government When the Previous Government Betrays the Trust It Has Been Given

One of the most remarkable things John Locke says in his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, in Chapter XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” sections 219 to 221, is that the people may erect their own government either when the previous government has descended into anarchy, or when it has betrayed the people’s trust. He argues that the people have an inherent right to

… a settled [government], and a fair and impartial execution of the laws made by it.

(Here I have translated the noun “legislative” as “government.”) Besides anarchy, the people, he says, have a right to erect a new government when the previous government betrays its trust:

The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.

If the people have this right, it is appropriate to make it possible for the people to exercise this right in a relatively low cost way. Democracy is one of the simplest—and in practice the most effective known way of lowering the cost of the people to exercise their right to erect a new government when the old one descends into anarchy or betrays the trust given to it.

Democracy in the real world is far from perfect. But it has this treat virtue: if the vast majority of people hate the government, then the government falls. Otherwise it is not a true democracy.

Even democracies in form that are not true democracies because the elections are rigged, still have some benefit in paying homage to the principle that if a government is horrible, the people get to replace it. And having a tradition of elections in form has, I believe, a positive effect on the likelihood of possible futures in which makes elections take full force. For example, who should be the successor in a dictatorship or semidictatorship is not always clear. Sometimes that question of succession will end up being resolved an election even though the elections before that were sham elections.

Moreover, in our world of 2019, elections have become a time when the rest of the world is watching. That is valuable.

If an autocracy really is looking after the welfare of the people (as most claim but do not do), then John Locke’s principle does not require democracy. But if an autocracy really is looking after the welfare of the people better than anyone else or any other organization would, it should be able to win an election. So if an autocracy is actually legitimate, there would be no harm to having a democracy instead, with the erstwhile autocrats being converted into election victors. (I don’t think John Locke would have any truck with the notion that the people are not good judges of their own welfare.) This way of looking at things does, however, suggest that one should not diss autocrats who genuinely govern putting the people’s welfare first and with high competence, then at some point institute elections and win them fairly.

In relation to these powerful ideas, it is well worth reading John Locke’s own words:

219. There is one way more whereby such a government may be dissolved, and that is, when he who has the supreme executive power neglects and abandons that charge, so that the laws already made can no longer be put in execution. This is demonstratively to reduce all to anarchy, and so effectually to dissolve the government: for laws not being made for themselves, but to be, by their execution, the bonds of the society, to keep every part of the body politic in its due place and function; when that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude, without order or connexion. Where there is no longer the administration of justice, for the securing of men’s rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left. Where the laws cannot be executed, it is all one as if there were no laws; and a government without laws is, I suppose, a mystery in politics, unconceivable to human capacity, and inconsistent with human society.

§. 220. In these and the like cases, when the government is dissolved, the people are at liberty to provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, differing from the other, by the change of persons, or form, or both, as they shall find it most for their safety and good: for the society can never, by the fault of another, lose the native and original right it has to preserve itself, which can only be done by a settled legislative, and a fair and impartial execution of the laws made by it. But the state of mankind is not so miserable that they are not capable of using this remedy, till it be too late to look for any. To tell people they may provide for themselves, by erecting a new legislative, when by oppression, artifice, or being delivered over to a foreign power, their old one is gone, is only to tell them, they may expect relief when it is too late, and the evil is past cure. This is in effect no more than to bid them first be slaves, and then to take care of their liberty; and when their chains are on, tell them, they may act like freemen. This, if barely so, is rather mockery than relief; and men can never be secure from tyranny, if there be no means to escape it till they are perfectly under it: and therefore it is that they have not only a right to get out of it, but to prevent it.

§. 221. There is therefore, secondly, another way whereby governments are dissolved,and that is, when the legislative, or the prince, either of them, act contrary to their trust.

First, The legislative acts against the trust reposed in them, when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters, or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Chris Kimball: Grief in the Journey

I am pleased to have another guest post on religion from my brother Chris. (You can see other guest posts by Chris listed at the bottom of this post.) Below are Chris’s words. When he writes “Church,” it means the Mormon Church, but those who have been in other churches or faiths may have had similar experiences.


I read a short article in Psychology Today titled “Four Types of Grief Nobody Told You About” (And why it’s important that we call them grief). I turned to the article out of curiosity and thinking about recent and not-so-recent deaths that affected me. What I found was surprisingly applicable to people I know in faith crisis. I generally prefer the term “faith journey” but the kinds of grief Sarah Epstein (the author) talks about refer me to the crisis part of the journey. I found it validating to see these described and recognized as important.

 Here are the headers from the article, with my personal experience following. I fight the temptation to generalize, believing that these stories are best told in raw first person.

1. Loss of identity: A lost role or affiliation.

Being an active all-in Church member was an identity, a role, an affiliation. The loss of identity is hard.  “Grief” seems like a good word. It is not a public grief, not dependent on other people knowing or any kind of formal change in membership or even attendance. Grief is about my own feelings. Sitting in a pew on Sunday knowing I don’t belong, knowing I will not be participating when others are called, knowing I am not the person I grew up thinking I was.  

2. Loss of safety: The lost sense of physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

The loss of safety may not be obvious to an outside observer, but I have often observed that one of the things the Church “offers” (scare quotes because I believe it is a false promise) is a feeling of safety and that can be lost. Keep the commandments at the temple recommend level—which gets you into “the house of the Lord”—and you’re good. Get your children sealed to you, on a mission, married in the temple, and you will be together forever. So goes the promise.

When I started questioning the promise, one result was to feel unsafe. I remember getting up from my knees (almost 25 years ago) with the words fear and trembling in my mind: “From now on you live in the world of working out salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

For me, growing up in a fully active multi-generation family with a grandfather who was an Apostle, the Church felt like home. Felt like family. I no longer feel that. I feel like an outsider. Like I'm wearing a disguise when I take up space in a pew on Sunday morning.

Even though the overall process is one of growth and independence, I grieve the loss of “safe" and "home" feelings, even if they never were fully justified.

3. Loss of autonomy: The lost ability to manage one’s own life and affairs.

I’m not sure about the loss of autonomy. The faith crisis happened to me. I didn’t choose it. I didn’t go looking for trouble. That out-of-control feeling might well fit this loss-of-autonomy category. It may also show up as a frustration when I hear “just don’t think about it” or “choose to be faithful” and know that is so not helpful. My annoyed reaction underscores an inability to take charge and make it right.

However, that all happened years ago and subsequent events—a cancer diagnosis—overwhelmed any Church-related loss of autonomy in my life. I cannot manage my life, but the highlight in my head is an invader trying to kill me, not the Church.

4. Loss of dreams or expectations: Dealing with hopes and dreams going unfulfilled.

This one really strikes home. I grew up in the Church. I expected to graduate from seminary. I did. I expected to go on a mission. I did. I expected to marry in the temple. I did. I expected to have normal sorts of callings and live much of my life inside the Church. I did . . . until age 40. I expected to hit an early retirement and spend most of the rest of my life in Church service. However, at around age 40, I realized with crystal clarity that I was stepping off the path. That my future was unknown except that it would not be what I grew up expecting. 

A lot of years have passed since I got up off my knees with an uncertain future, but it is not quite as simple as water under the bridge. My cousin and his wife—almost exactly my age—are mission president now in Japan Fukuoka. I think about what might have been. There are several ways it never would have worked (including my health), but “what might have been” doesn’t go easy. It is a loss and I hurt.

In the big picture I am happy and enjoying my second life. But the grief is there too. I have lost an identity, I have lost a sense of safety, I have lost control over my life, and I have lost dreams and expectations. I am better for naming and recognizing, but that doesn't make it all better.


 Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

John Locke on Monarchs (Or Presidents) Who Destroy a Constitution

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Louis XIV of France.”    Among other actions during his reign, Louis XIV presided over ethnic cleansing of the    Huguenots    (the Protestants in his realm) and centralized power in his own hands.

Link to the Wikipedia article on “Louis XIV of France.” Among other actions during his reign, Louis XIV presided over ethnic cleansing of the Huguenots (the Protestants in his realm) and centralized power in his own hands.

John Locke, in Chapter XIX of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of the Dissolution of Government,” lists four ways in which a monarch can subvert the constitution of a nation in a way that effectively undoes the government and so eliminates any obligation to obey the unconstitutional pretense of a government that replaces the legitimate government:

  • Ruling by decree instead of duly enacted legislation

  • Preventing the legislature from meeting or constraining free speech and free deliberation within the legislature

  • Stealing or fixing elections

  • Giving people to a foreign power

By “monarch” I am referring to the “single hereditary person” in John Locke’s description of a should-be-constitutional monarchy:

§. 213. This being usually brought about by such in the commonwealth who misuse the power they have; it is hard to consider it aright, and know at whose door to lay it, without knowing the form of government in which it happens. Let us suppose then the legislative placed in the concurrence of three distinct-persons.  

  1. A single hereditary person, having the constant, supreme, executive power, and with it the power of convoking and dissolving the other two within certain periods of time.  

  2. An assembly of hereditary nobility.  

  3. An assembly of representatives chosen, pro tempore, by the people. Such a form of government supposed, it is evident,  

However, the same principles apply to a president or any other top ruler in a nation.

Here are John Locke’s four no-nos for a monarch, president or other top ruler that are serious enough to dissolve any obligation of obedience to the remaining pretense of a government.

Ruling by decree instead of by duly enacted legislation.

§. 214. First, That when such a single person, or prince, sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws, which are the will of the society, declared by the legislative, then the legislative is changed: for that being in effect the legislative, whose rules and laws are put in execution, and required to be obeyed; when other laws are set up, and other rules pretended, and inforced, than what the legislative constituted by the society have enacted, it is plain that the legislative is changed. Whoever introduces new laws, not being thereunto authorized by the fundamental appointment of the society, or subverts the old, disowns and overturns the power by which they were made, and so sets up a new legislative.  

Preventing the legislature from meeting or constraining free speech and free deliberation within the legislature.

§. 215. Secondly, When the prince hinders the legislative from assembling in its due time, or from acting freely, pursuant to those ends for which it was constituted, the legislative is altered: for it is not a certain number of men, no, nor their meeting, unless they have also freedom of debating, and leisure of perfecting, what is for the good of the society, wherein the legislative consists: when these are taken away or altered, so as to deprive the society of the due exercise of their power, the legislative is truly altered; for it is not names that constitute governments, but the use and exercise of those powers that were intended to accompany them; so that he, who takes away the freedom, or hinders the acting of the legislative in its due seasons, in effect takes away the legislative, and puts an end to the government.  

Stealing or fixing elections.

§. 216. Thirdly, When, by the arbitrary power of the prince, the electors, or ways of election are altered, without the consent, and contrary to the common interest of the people, there also the legislative is altered: for, if others than those whom the society hath authorized thereunto, do chuse, or in another way than what the society hath prescribed, those chosen are not the legislative appointed by the people.

Giving people to a foreign power.  

§. 217. Fourthly, The delivery also of the people into subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another.  

John Locke then explains why the monarch or top ruler is usually to blame when these things happen, although the monarch or top ruler usually has accomplices (sometimes within the legislature):

§. 218. Why, in such a constitution as this, the dissolution of the government in these cases is to be imputed to the prince, is evident; because he having the force, treasure and offices of the state to employ, and often persuading himself, or being flattered by others, that as supreme magistrate he is uncapable of controul; he alone is in a condition to make great advances toward such changes, under pretence of lawful authority, and has it in his hands to terrify or suppress opposers, as factious, seditious, and enemies to the government: whereas no other part of the legislative, or people, is capable by themselves to attempt any alteration of the legislative, without open and visible rebellion, apt enough to be taken notice of, which, when it prevails, produces effects very little different from foreign conquest. Besides, the prince in such a form of government, having the power of dissolving the other parts of the legislative, and thereby rendering them private persons, they can never in opposition to him, or without his concurrence, alter the legislative by a law, his consent being necessary to give any of their decrees that sanction. But yet, so far as the other parts of the legislative any way contribute to any attempt upon the government, and do either promote, or not, what lies in them, hinder such designs, they are guilty, and partake in this, which is certainly the greatest crime men can be guilty of one towards another.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 


Charlotte Graham-McLay—New Zealand’s Next Milestone: A Budget Guided by Well-Being

I am proud that the Well-Being Measurement Initiative, headed by Dan Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Kristen Cooper and me, is involved in this New Zealand effort. In the summer of 2015, I spent three weeks at the New Zealand Treasury working on this effort. Data collection is slated to take place this summer.

I do not see guiding policy by well-being as inherently left-wing. It only becomes left-wing when important aspects of well-being that are especially important to those on the right are omitted from data collection. In our approach, we strive to include a wide range of aspects of well-being.

John Locke: The Obligation to Obey the Law Does Not Apply to Laws Promulgated by Invaders and Usurpers Who Do Not Have the Consent of the Governed

If one regards the Witenagemot as the legitimate 11th century body to decide who the King of England should be in cases of contested succession, then William the Conqueror was a usurper. But I’ll bet John Locke regarded many of the successors to William the Conqueror as legitimate rulers. How can that be? The key is that anyone who ascended to the throne from a power politics point of view as the successor to a usurper has the opportunity to make their case to the people to become a ruler by the consent of the governed. Back then, this was not always done by submitting to an election, but still involved trying to appeal to the people. For example, Queen Elizabeth I made many efforts to appeal to the people for support and willingness to be governed by her.

The way John Locke frames things in Chapter XIX of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of the Dissolution of Government” is that both invasion and usurpation return people to a state of nature in their obligations. Then they have the right to decide on whether they agree with a particular proposal for a new government with a new ruler:

§. 211. HE that will with any clearness speak of the dissolution of government, ought in the first place to distinguish between the dissolution of the society and the dissolution of the government. That which makes the community, and brings men out of the loose state of nature, into one politic society, is the agreement which every one has with the rest to incorporate, and act as one body, and so be one distinct commonwealth. The usual, and almost only way whereby this union is dissolved, is the inroad of foreign force making a conquest upon them: for in that case, (not being able to maintain and support themselves, as one entire and independent body) the union belonging to that body which consisted therein, must necessarily cease, and so every one return to the state he was in before, with a liberty to shift for himself, and provide for his own safety, as he thinks fit, in some other society. Whenever the society is dissolved, it is certain the government of that society cannot remain. Thus conquerors swords often cut up governments by the roots, and mangle societies to pieces, separating the subdued or scattered multitude from the protection of, and dependence on, that society, which ought to have preserved them from violence. The world is too well instructed in, and too forward to allow of, this way of dissolving of governments, to need any more to be said of it; and there wants not much argument to prove, that where the society is dissolved, the government cannot remain; that being as impossible, as for the frame of an house to subsist when the materials of it are scattered and dissipated by a whirlwind, or jumbled into a confused heap by an earthquake.  

§. 212. Besides this overturning from without, governments are dissolved from within, First, When the legislative is altered. Civil society being a state of peace, amongst those who are of it, from whom the state of war is excluded by the umpirage which they have provided in their legislative, for the ending all differences that may arise amongst any of them, it is in their legislative, that the members of a commonwealth are united, and combined together into one coherent living body. This is the soul that gives form, life, and unity, to the commonwealth: from hence the several members have their mutual influence, sympathy and connexion: and therefore, when the legislative is broken, or dissolved, dissolution and death follows: for the essence and unity of the society consisting in having one will, the legislative, when once established by the majority, has the declaring, and as it were keeping of that will. The constitution of the legislative is the first and fundamental act of society, whereby provision is made for the continuation of their union, under the direction of persons, and bonds of laws, made by persons authorized thereunto, by the consent and appointment of the people, without which no one man, or number of men, amongst them, can have authority of making laws that shall be binding to the rest. When any one or more, shall take upon them to make laws, whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, which the people are not therefore bound to obey; by which means they come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves a new legislative, as they think best, being in full liberty to resist the force of those, who without authority would impose any thing upon them. Every one is at the disposure of his own will, when those who had, by the delegation of the society, the declaring of the public will, are excluded from it, and others usurp the place, who have no such authority or delegation.

The lack of obligation to obey laws promulgated by rulers who do not have the consent of the people is highly relevant in the situation in Venezuela, as of June 1, 2019: Nicolas Maduro, who has most of the army behind him, does not currently have the consent of the people in the sense of being able to win a free and fair election, which in addition to being an attractive principle in its own right, was the constitutionally established way of choosing a ruler. Many Venezuelans have therefore transferred their loyalty to Juan Guaidó, who has the consent of a large number of Venezuelans to be their ruler, as well as the diplomatic recognition from many other countries as a ruler chosen by a constitutional process, as least for an interim leading up to an election.

Having a dominant army at one’s command does not make one a legitimate ruler. The people must consent to one heading the government, or there is no legitimacy and no obligation to obey new laws.

To avoid anarchy, a good rule is that old laws, duly enacted by duly chosen rulers should still be obeyed while the struggle with invaders and usurpers is carried on. No one should feel they can commit murder unrelated to the struggle for freedom simply because a usurper is on the throne. And many crimes, such as rape, have no legitimate role in any struggle for freedom. It might be inconvenient that old, duly enacted laws may become somewhat outdated if the struggle for freedom continues on a long time before resolution. But even in those cases, leaning hard toward obeying old, duly-enacted laws is an important shield against anarchy.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Disregard for truth as a Sign of a Totalitarian Impulse

The headline: “MFA confirms offensive remarks from patrons, bans two members.”

Link to the tweet above. Link to a more recent Boston Globe article about the incident.

I responded to Melissa McDaniel’s tweet above with these tweets:

It is dangerous to our society when finding out and verifying the truth is denigrated. Racism and sexism are real. Proving that they reared their ugly head in a particular instance is a valuable service in fighting them.

Let me say that in relation to sexual harassment and sexual abuse, a good Bayesian assessment of whether it occurred in a given instance requires an understanding of how high the base rates are. But we don't want to create strong incentives (now quite weak) for false accusation.

The temptation to set aside or denigrate truth in service of a cause is an old one. Many religions, believing that people’s eternal souls or the fate of the world were at stake, have subordinated ordinary garden variety small-t truth to what they considered a grander Truth. But as I said in “What is a Partisan Nonpartisan Blog?” I am with my best friend Kim Leavitt in believing

We are in trouble if we let our devotion to Truth get in the way of our devotion to truth.

In particular, those who show a disregard for truth in their eagerness to get particular results betray a certain controlling—and in the extreme—totalitarian impulse. Or to take another perspective, one time that deception and lying is justified is in wartime. But by that analogy, lying to me is a sign that the liar is my enemy. I would much rather make a judgment myself, knowing the truth, than let someone else make that judgment for me. Any argument that I am not able to make that judgment puts me at a lower rank than those who can be trusted to know the truth. In some contexts, such as national security or grand jury testimony, I am OK with being at a lower rank. But in regard to, say, making a judgment about, say, Brett Kavanaugh, as I did in “On Guilt by Association,” or Donald Trump, I would not be OK with the antidemocratic approach of saying only others could be trusted to see the evidence.

Trust but Verify: Bayes Rule. Let me explain my remarks about a Bayesian approach. Bayes’ Rule says that the probability P( ) that someone is guilty of, say, sexual abuse, given being accused, is

P(guilty given accused) = P(guilty) P(accused when guilty) /

P(guilty) P(accused when guilty) + P(innocent) P(accused when innocent)

The fact that sexual abuse is common makes P(guilty) high for the accused and non-accused combined. This “base right” that so many people are, in fact, guilty of sexual abuse makes it more likely that any particular person who is accused is, in fact, guilty. But something that can drag down the probability that any particular person is guilty when accused is if the probably of being accused even when innocent—P(accused when innocent)—is high. Currently, I think the probability of being accused of sexual abuse when innocent is only of moderate magnitude. (It becomes higher in custody battles and political battles where there is more to gain from a false accusation.) And the base rate of being innocent when including both the accused and non-accused—P(innocent)—is high. So if the fraction of innocent people who are accused ever were to become high, that would totally change the equation.

We currently have a system that asks for enough verification that the incentives to falsely accuse are kept in check. But if we ever stopped asking for verification, the number of false accusations could skyrocket. One cannot generalize from a small number of false accusations now to a small number of accusations in a future world where we stopped asking for verification (leaving the accuser unavenged or unhappy if verification cannot be found).

Conclusion. To me, confirming is a noble thing. We need to know what is true and what is not. Anyone who can help us in that regard is doing a good thing. (I talked about some of the key exceptions in my discussion of blackmail in “The Government and the Mob.”) Wherever public policy relies on concealment or deception, we should always be looking for alternative ways of achieving the end (assuming the end is worthwhile) that do not require concealment or deception.’

In the arena of truth, I feel that scientists—both natural and social scientists—have an extra responsibility to serve the truth. It makes me angry to ever see a scientist subvert truth for the sake of other ends—whether those ends are furthering a career or furthering a cause. Trying to turn this principle on myself, I wrote in “What is a Partisan Nonpartisan Blog?

In a fractal recapitulation of the “team-loyalty versus unvarnished opinion on each issue” conflict, fidelity to the truth can sometimes hurt the overall thread of one’s argument on an issue. Here, fidelity to the truth has to come first. Let me list the legitimate excuses: (a) there is no duty to mention facts that seem to run against one’s argument that are actually unimportant and could easily be answered; (b) for clarity it is permissible to defer dealing with even important, widely-known facts until a commenter sets up the Q part of the Q&A; and (c) human language always deals in approximations, especially in short-form essays. But for a blogger who hopes to have the trust of readers, it is never OK to say something one knows to be false and misleading, even in the service of what one might think is a higher Truth.

I am also angry with anyone who says, in any context, that it isn’t important to verify the truth before rushing to judgment in any matter of consequence.

Related posts: