Friday, March 9, 2018

The Supernatural Problem in Quasi-Religion

One of the critiques that occurs when applying a religious or quasi-religious lens to modern secular cult like groups is the absence of supernatural agents.  

But, as I've said before, this problem usually comes from trying to generate one-to-one superficial maps onto questions that are best addressed via dynamical similarities. For instance if you focus on modern shirts, what happens when you run into a toga? The superficial features don't match. But the functional features do.  From another perspective, the level of precision used in defining shirts was too great.


In his classic In Gods We Trust, Atran used the term Moral Big Brothers rather than Gods.  While religions often have supernatural Big Brothers, supernaturalism is a sub-set rather than supra-set. Norenzayan has expanded this idea more fully than Atran.

The basic idea is that what matters is what effect an imagined Big Brother has on people.  Embodiment, such as occurs in paganism, simply makes the Big Brother seem more real, facilitating guesses about what they may like or value in any given situation. Similarly, supernaturalism, simply serves to increase the potential punishment and rewards a Big Brother can provide. Plus, it adds a bit of counter-factuality to increase memetic fitness (see this post of mine)


List & Pettit (2011) have done some really good work on Group Agents.  Here's a quote:
Individuals may form a group agent in virtue of evolutionary selection or cleverly designed incentives to act as required for group agency, perhaps within independent cells.  here the individuals contribute to the group agent's performance, but do not explicitly authorize the group agent, the need not even be aware of its existence. (p. 36)
One of the challenges is how to make a Turing machine aggregator "rational".  They take a fairly generous approach here simply saying that the aggregate needs to :
  1. respond to its surroundings (be rational & responsive), and
  2. rationalize its positions (beliefs & desires)
They also add in the need for binary attitudes (but that is more to tie up details associated with a rigorous formal logical approach).

On a whole, this boils down to something like the Turing test.  The aggregator is rational if people ascribe intentionality to it.

While their work has tonnes of depth and fascinating detail,  I'll resist tangent-temptations and pull another quote.
The supervenient relation between the members' attitudes and actions and those of the group can be so complex that the group agent may sometimes think or do something that few, if any, members individually support.  And secondly, the supervenient of the group's attitudes and actions on those of its members is entirely consistent with some individuals being systematically overruled on issues that matter to them a lot.  Accordingly, the kind of control that individual members must be able to exercise in order to enjoy effective protection has to be stronger.  It is not enough for individuals to be able to contribute to what the group thinks or does on the issues that particularly matter to them.  They must be individually decisive on those issues.  Roughly speaking, we say that an individual is 'decisive' on a particular issue if he or she is able to determine fully -  and not merely in conjunction with other individuals - how this issue is to be settled. (p. 130)

This leads to a very interesting (and rigorously argued) conclusion: group agents 'control' individual actors via attitude biasing.  This is in stark contrast to usual definitions of control which assume the application or threat of application of formal power.  Here's another quote on this:

Since our definition of control has taken the group's attitudes, rather than its actions themselves, to be the targets of the individuals' control - the reason being that the group's actions are usually mediated by its attitudes - we can focus, once more on the part of the organizational structure that is easiest to model theoretically: its underlying aggregation function. (p. 136)
As mentioned the aggregation function is based in attitude biasing.  More specially it is a type of espoused, and complexly aggregated, morality.  Here are a few more quotes to take us to the end.
To be a person is to have the capacity to perform as a person.  An to perform as a person is to be party to a system of accepted conventions, such as a system of law, under which one contracts obligations to others... In particular it is to be a knowledgeable and competent party to such a system of obligations.  One knows what is owed to one, and what one owes to others, and one is able and willing to pay one's debts or to recognize that censure and sanction are reasonable in cases of failure... But non-persons cannot be moved by being made aware of obligations they owe to others. (p. 173)
To be sure, group agents are not flesh-and-blood persons.  They are pachydermic and inflexible in various ways, and lack the perceptions and emotions of human individuals.  But they nonetheless have the basic prerequisites of personhood.  Not only do they form and enact a single mind, displaying beliefs and acting on their basis.  They can speak for that mind in a way that enables them to function within the space of mutual recognized obligations. (p.176)


List & Petti's work make no requirement for the degree of bias a Group Agent has on an individual.  It just needs to have some effect.  An inference from this, based on Atran's later work in Identity Fusion, and from the literature on moral groups, is that the degree of identification with a group's morality strongly influences the degree of bias a Group Agent (Moral Big Brother) has on the individual.

For example, highly moral groups usually have more influential Group Agents (Moral Big Brothers) than weakly moral or a-moral groups. It is the dynamics that matter.

In terms of modern secular quasi religions this means its the dynamics of the feedback from the Group Agent to the individual that matter.  Groups that have significant Group Agent feedback combined with sacred values, ritual, costly commitment displays, and steep in-group out-group gradients are highly likely to be "religious".

Is Everything A Religion?

I just ran into an old SlateStarCodex post by Scott Alexander which argues that framing any highly-groupish social systems as religions is problematic, obfuscationalist and pointlessly broad.  Well, maybe he only really said pointlessly broad, but you don't need divine wisdom to get his gist!

Academic definition disagreements in the social sciences often follow some general patterns.  This usually boils down to the following range of options:

  1. Definitions mainly based on a single factor (like supernaturalism),
  2. Definitions based on a couple of clear cut factors (ie. supernaturalism, costly commitment display, group influence on individuals, etc.)
  3.  Definitions based on non-simplistic factor probability mash-ups (ie. 7/10 things from a factor list...)

Scott seem to take the first track (but also seems amenable to 2).  I think religion is definitely a 3.


When you look at religion from a scientific perspective there are a couple of things which make this approach different from conventional religious or sociological perspectives.  For me, its religion's evolutionary history; particular for its (evolutionary) recent disentanglement from culture.

I'd wager that more than a few people assume religion has always had a communicable explicit theology.  It hasn't.  Tribal religion was often highly implicit. While it certainly facilitated out-group relations (Norezayan, 2013), tribal religions didn't tend to have the universalist assumptions nor universal intentions of today's world religions.

Modern world religions tend toward disentangleable (and universalaizeable) theologies.  Some religions, like Islam have minimal cultural-theology separations.  Other religions, like Christianity have fairly strong separations. Tribal religions, like those of the Blackfeet, tend to have minimal to no cultrual-theological distinctions.

Ancient religions (pre-7th century BCE) tend to have theologies which are not designed for rational exposition and immigrant conversion.  Without this bit of background people often interpret religion as an overly-simplistic set of abstract beliefs re-enforced by orthopraxy & ritual.  This naivety leads to interpretations of religion as simple uber-culture (with self-sustaining memetic practices).  However, this approach doesn't capture the whole picture of religion.  Religion has functioned as a steady state solution to a complex Darwinian multi-level selection game (Norezayan 2013, Wilson 2003).  Religion is an optimal solution to group-level competition.

Scott gets the basics* of the religion-culture interface but, like most, misses the Darwinian, multi-level selection component.

The difference between “religion” and “culture” has always been pretty vague. Shinto is the best example; it’s less a coherent metaphysical narrative than a bunch of things Japanese people do and a repository for Japanese traditions and rituals. A quick look at Hinduism reveals that they have no idea what gods they believe in, it’s a bunch of different religions stuck together under one umbrella, but the point is that it’s the sort of thing Indian people do and a repository of Indian traditions. Even though Jews have a pretty coherent religion, the line between “Jewish culture” and “Jewish religion” is equally fuzzy. Religion as distinct from culture seems like a pretty Western phenomenon, the result of a triumphant Christianity colonizing cultures it never originated from, ending out with the modern conception of culture as ethnic food + silly costumes.

Scott's argument is that overly broad conceptions of religions confound culture/community with religion.  Religious-like aspects then get applied to things they shouldn't.  Thus the false application of religious categorization falls somewhere between purposeful obfuscation and academic malpractice.

But I still think it’s unfair to call these communities/cultures “religions”. “Religion” is too easy to use as the Worst Argument In The World here. It’s supposed to imply all of these other connotations of “religion” like “their beliefs are based on magical thinking” and “they use blind faith instead of reason” and “instead of coming up with a world-view based on evidence they just played Bible Mad Libs.” If those are the connotations you’ve got with “religion”, then I think the word “religion” is actively doing harm here, and you should just use “belief-based community” or “movement” or whatever.
When things are defined by their properties, you can never be sure that a list of properties will produce a 1-to-1 map back onto the thing you want.  For instance a cow may have four legs and go moo, but not everything with four legs that moo's is a cow.  Additionally factor combinations tend to fairly subjective: while they are better than pure opinions, final determinations tend to get made by appeals to expert authorities.  This is problematic.  To get around this you can:

  1. Stipulate uni-directionality (But this largely prevents falsification. This makes things VERY unscientific.)
  2. Assume a process philosophy stance: viewing everything as nexus of multiple processes, each of which ebbs and flows over time.  Steady state solutions are possible but function complexly. Properties are the steady state nexuses. (Process philosophy's radical functionalism meshes poorly with scientific methogies and falsification criteria)
  3. Objectify state descriptions by plotting phase change curves (ie. differential effects)

Some science of religion folk, like me, tend to sociophysical approaches. Rather than leaving factor calculus vague and probabilistic (and hence error prone), sociophysical approaches look for phase change signals.  Surprisingly enough, simple tools, like the web-based identity fusion tool (see here for some theoretical background), do a decent job picking up phase changes (although current analysis levels seem to be of the overly simplistic linear correlational type).

So this puts us looking for social/psychological phase changes within a religious/communal/cultural sphere.  In terms of Scott's arguments, religion is characterized by supernaturalism.

Unfortunately supernaturalism, while reasonably good for creating fences, just isn't that good for detecting meaningful social/psychological phase changes.

For example, while 2000's era evangelical new-atheism is certainly a-supernatural, it had a heck of a lot of the social factors people normally associate with religion (including high identity fusion).  Of course many disagree, considering it at best, a community.  This takes us back to Scott's false-positive false-negative quandary from which narrow supernaturalism was supposed to save us!

Unfortunately the supernatural fence is further confounded by the role Moral Big Brother's.  In very groupish secular communities, moral big brothers can play the role of unembodied supernatural agents. For example radical human-right's epistemology has huge levels of moral fusion that clearly exceed what a rational actor's best-world optimization solution would warrant. Many radical human-righter's allude to ideas like Karma or new-age spirituality to defend the arbitrariness of their ethics. Utopian ideas and states are, for all practical purposes, akin to the unembodied supernaturalism of soft Deists. Differences largely reside at the individual level: at the nexus of language, personal meaning and personal influence.

Thus I could be a Deist who's comfortable with supernatural language, only gets a vague sense of meaning from a weakly embodied Deity and is not at all influenced by its Moral Big Brother role.  Or, I could be a human-right's based secularist with rejects supernatural language, gets a large sense of meaning from a new-age like interpretation of Karma, and is highly influenced by its Moral Big Brother role.  Abstractly, the Deist is more supernatural, but practically the secularist is more supernatural! Supernatural exclusivity is a false boundary.  It is not binary!  Supernaturalism is convenient because we're familiar with it and it makes a "good-enough" heuristic.

*While I suspect the distinction between religion and culture probably started with (or was seeded by) Cyrus the Great's  forays into religious and cultural pluralism, Christianity's expanse into multiple cultures was certainly an important decanter.  The Protestant reformation was another major decant.  In America, the 1730's and 1820's religious awakenings and their pluralistic successes further separated the religion-culture interface. In fact, it's probably best to say that the religion-culture interface follows a punctuated evolutionary separation pattern.  Further, I'd suggest that our current progressive culture wars tend to reveal our presence smack dab in the middle/end of another major punctuation.  Current dynamics seem to follow the pattern of prior religious pluralism awakenings.  In our case, the pluralistic part involves the broad acceptance of atheism.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Privilege Fish

From what I understand, privilege is defined in Social Justice / Intersectionality as "advantage(s) conferred on someone due to their phenotype (race, sex, gender expression, etc.)".  Accommodation is also made for physical disabilities, say like accident caused amputations.  Privilege is also situational.  A phenotype which is privileged in one context (say North America) may not be privileged in another context (say China).

Mathematicians and physicists usually test ideas by exploring boundary conditions - what happens at extreme values.

So, let's imagine a white male who is privileged because of race, sex, gender, and able-bodiness.  This is the epitome of privilege. Now let's take a look at an extreme set of experiences for such an individual. To keep things grounded I'll use an example of someone I grew up with.

This white individual of privilege had a lot of negative life experiences.

  • As a child and youth he was continually pimped out to the local police chief and his Hell's Angel's business partners. He was continually abused at home.
  • His attempts to report this information were continually thwarted. In some instances, where things did move slightly ahead, they were met by short periods of punishment/torture as the "system" took care of its own to ensure nothing was exposed.
  • Several of his junior high teachers explicitly denied the possibility of this abuse because "boys can't be raped. Only girls can."
  • He sister committed suicide when he was about 10.  He was the one who found her in a bath tub.
  • He experienced the trauma produced by repeated suicide attempts by his mother.
  • He was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a young teen while living on the street.
  • His family heritage was the Armenian genocide. His specific family stories centred around the Armenian "Trail of Tears".
  • This genocide was and still is denied by his own Government.  It was derided by almost all the people he grew up with.  When his family's genocide was brought up in school it was continually denied by teachers.
  • He eventually committed suicide. My inference is that he had started to propagate this cycle of abuse onto others and couldn't live with himself anymore.
So, because of his skin colour, sex and gender he is more "privileged" than an upper class women of colour with no history of abuse.

Confounding Group Statistics with Individual Implications

One explanation of privilege I have heard centres on the statistical benefits that come with certain phenotypically determined groups. So, for instance, my abused friend will have a (statistically) easier time getting a job, or being respected than other phenotypically determined groups.

One major issue with this line of thinking is how it confounds group based probabilities with what might be true at the individual level.  Statistical benefits may occur due to group stereotypes. But as any population biologist or anthropologist knows, this does not mean any individual necessarily receives those benefits.  For instance, just because men are on average taller than women does not mean any man is taller than any women. That is patently false. Statistical based privilege is similarly false when applied to any single individual.

Application of statistical based privilege is false when applied to any individual. The degree of error  (or accuracy) is described by statistical probabilities.

Parsing Problems
In the case of my friend the white male privilege of having your "opinion respected" did not occur for his most essential item - others belief in his abuse. Statistically speaking a case can be made that his opinion was, however respected (privileged) in other areas.

In the case of privilege however, it is not the individual (the target of privilege) who determines benefit, it is the accuser (the external interpreter of privilege). This is an ironic switch for Social Justice.

This leads to a very significant parsing problem. If a single instance of "opinion respect" can be found, then it is technically accurate to say that individual has the privilege of "opinion respect". There is no net aggregation. This leads to some rather nasty displays.

Thus, there is no escape from privilege. Just like original sin, one can always be found guilty of something.  This then justifies application of the term. Application of the term then enables sociopathic people to leverage the connotations of net aggregation. In you have one instant of "opinion respect" privilege, then, regardless of actual percentage of occurrence or severity of non-occurrence, the label remains technically valid. You are "privileged".

The parsing problem creates an ideal weaponized rhetorical tool.

Singular Positives vs. Net Positives
Net positive conflation is probably one of the reasons many people get so mad at the term. It connotes "net", but is technically limited only to positive "singular" benefits.  Thus if being purple has 99 negatives associated with it and 1 positive, it is still "privilege".  This is sort of like how a number of world religions assume it is not the net sum of your good and bad actions that determine eternal rewards, but the mere presence of one wrong thing.

From this perspective, my friend had lots of privileges. His many life negatives do not negate any of his privileges. This directly counters the way people typically use and understand language.

Further, only the wokest individuals can talk about black privilege or trans privilege, etc.  This is because in most usages privilege is uni-directional. Privilege usually only applied to individuals who hold power intersections (i.e. white cis-gendered males). Objective application across all people is discouraged/anathema.

The dynamical problem with singular privilege is that it can be incredibly rude. For example, imagine telling a Native American, say a male southern Pikani Blackfoot, that colonialism has confirmed upon them privilege. Their entire tribe save one or two individuals were killed. Their matriarchal culture switched to a patriarchy because of "colonialism". And yet, they are privileged because their matriarchy was was forcibly colonized and they now accrue statistical benefits from their "maleness".

Such racial or sex based bigotry is unconscionable. And yet, according to privilege theory, it is technically true.

Privilege can turn some of the most catastrophic events a person experiences and call them "a positive benefit".  For instance, an individual, like my friend, may have been assaulted precisely because of their maleness, but technically the same phenotypical characteristic that led to such pain is properly called "privilege". This is very much like calling Native colonization a "privilege". This isn't to say some good eventually came out of the experience at a statistical level. It is to say your skin colour makes it a benefit for you regardless of anything you have individually experienced.

Of course this is how many people feel about "objective" facts about colonization, race, and sex. Objectivity seeks degree. Privilege, in my opinion, does not.  It seeks taboo (anything that might possibly be "wrong").

My suspicion is that the taboo approach provides marginalized feeling bigots a chance to get even with people they see as powerful. It doesn't matter if that individual has 99 things against them. That 1 target will do just fine...

Needless to say, this isn't a good strategy for anyone worried about societal cohesion....

The Two Fish Problem
I think the most pernicious aspect of privilege is best analogized by Bret Weinstein's whale-fish or two-fish problem. 

Is a whale a fish? A couple of centuries ago fisherman probably would have said, "yes". It's a big animal that swims in the ocean. But most people today know that a whale is actually a mammal.  It is not part of one of the four classes containing fish. But a really dry-witted erudite might say, "yes". The whale has a common ancestor with fish. So if you go back to this division point, fish and mammals converge. So a whale is phylogenetically a fish.

This is where "privilege"can and does produce significant pain, significant societal strain, and righteous-based back lash.

For instance, my friend, an Armenian with white skin was, by most functional definitions, a "minority". He (or rather his lineage) had experienced cultural and physical genocide. This included significant persecution and marginalization. I would suggest the severity of these events was similar to that experienced by many Native Americans. And yet, because of his skin colour, he is denied any recognition of his individual experiences. He is simply judged by his phenotype.

I think the Sami people face a similar burden. This northern Scandinavian indigenous group has faced   similar "colonial" issues other aboriginal groups across the world have. The main difference is that their skin is white.  Thus they are "privileged".

Doesn't this just throw salt into their wounds? They have all the negatives of other groups but are told, by virtue signallers, that they are a "swimming fish" (privileged because of skin colour) rather than a "phylogenetic fish" (marginalized because of their experiences). The technical definition of privilege is strained to accommodate double layered issues.

This is the fatal flaw that singular rather than net definitions of privilege face.

Patent racism and sexism throws salt into the wounds of those, who like my friend have suffered specifically because of the phenotype group they belong to.

By ignoring the 99 things that are punitive so you can decry 1 thing that may be "beneficial", you do a world of harm. Traumatized individuals who are told that their source of trauma is a "privilege" generally don't respond well. Did my friend kill himself over this? Do some white school shooters kill because of this type of salt-in-the-wound dissonance?

Justification that "the privilege lens leads to good ends because it fights the patriarchy and rebalances things" is horrible Maoist reasoning.  It is why the dynamics of "privilege" engender such harsh reactions. It is an utterly sociopathic position that purposively buries individual experience for the sake of blanket generalizations.

It is like walking up to a homeless man who has suffered unbelievable crap and focussing on one good thing he has and then decrying him for that very thing. How contemptible. And yet this is the message that many Aspergery people are taking from this "fight they system" movement.

Why not just treat people as individuals.  Racism of any type is not good... even if it can appeal to "good intentions" and utopian "re-balancing".

Like many people, I hope this cancerous, weaponized rhetorical meme dies before its dynamics destroys what little social asabiyah and good will is left within Western countries.


Is Everyone Really Equal

Intersectionality is not the problem

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Charter Schools: The Small Group Orientation

This post is a follow-up from a previous through experiment applying education as an adaptive group theory to charter schools.

Part 1 - Framing the situation
Part 2 - Large group orientation
Part 3 - Small group orientation
Part 4 - Evaluating other approaches


This post has been sitting in the editing pile for a while. It followed up on a discussions about how charter school scenarios can be framed in terms of Education as an Adaptive Group theory. The gist of this theory involves interpreting charter school tensions via multi-level selection theory and it's large-group vs. small-group orientations.

Advantages of this perspective are:
  • It is based on an underlying causative structure that is empirically verifiable (in principle).  Standard educational perspectives rely on descriptive analysis which suffer many of the dogmatic problems associated with soft social sciences.
  • It elevates the role of dynamic tension.  In doing so it provides a causative model for education's inferred complex orientation behaviour.
  • It makes falsifiable predictions about charter school evolution patterns.
  • It provides a full explanation of why (and when) a charter school can be considered a rational agent rather than just an amalgamation of individuals.

Large Group Orientation Review

My last post on this subject flushed out the large group orientation.  This involved charter school orientation to large-group (i.e. public education) moral mission.  While public education's moral mission resists precise description, it may be reasonable to speculate that it encompasses something touching on social equity.

Large group orientation means a charter school does not engage in nor justify niche focussed behaviour at the general population's expense.  Innovation may stretch the bounds of acceptable large-group sacrifice, but, in vernacular terms, a large-group oriented school won't say "we have no duty to worry about your type here".  A large-group oriented charter school may certainly say, "you may be better off elsewhere,".  However, even this type of response is unlikely.

Large group orientations are represented by behaviour which is generally fitness enhancing for the large group.  This occurs either by maximizing average individual fitnesses (MLS2), or by maximizing the fitness of the group itself (MLS1).  While nested groupings are possible (and likely), this post will try to keep things as simple as possible.


Small-group (individualistic) orientation in charter schools seems to have two modes of expression:

  1. A focus on the school's fitness.
  2. A focus on individual teachers' fitness.  
For simplicity I won't delve into individual teachers' fitness: the extra nesting just makes discussion longer. The school itself is the unit of analysis (just like last post). Therefore, small-group orientation is characterized by doing what is best for the school with minimal regard to (institutionalized) education as a whole.

Freeloading therefore involves superficial compliance with public education's boundaries.  This enables large-group benefits to continue accruing (e.g. funding, accreditation, etc.).

These actions need not be purposefully deceitful.  Indeed, self-rationalization has been shown to be a good tool to prevent freeloader detection. However, self-deceptive rationalization also tends to create background anxiety and guilt (at least if you're not a sociopath).  There are a couple of steady state solutions to this tension:

  • Rationalize away freeloading effects by minimizing their severity on others (downloading that torrent really doesn't affect the movie company because I was going to wait till it came on TV anyway).
  • Devalue the targets of freeloading (The people in my church are so lame. They're lucky to have me. Too bad for them if I don't contribute to any church funds.).  Self separation from a group minimizes the chances you'll get caught freeloading

What We'd See

Going-it-alone for a charter school would involve antipathy to the constraining norms and taboos of traditional public education practice (the large-group).  As norm deviation increases, freeloading is challenged and intentions are tested for moral mission compliance.  Ultimately large-group benefits are revoked.  Revocation might include public funding losses, accreditation losses, or simple ostricization.  Going-it-alone increases selective pressure on the charter school (small-group).  Under high selective forces, adaptation is required.  This might involve niche specialization or direct competition.  Direct competition at the group levels specified involves competition for followers.
    1. Niche specialization means that the charter school isn't seen as a real competitor for the resources sought by the large group.  An example might be a madrassah.  Madrassah practices and memberships doesn't seem to be of much interest to North American institutionalized education.
    2. Direct competition would mean the charter school must be able to offer a product which is of equal or greater value than that offered by the large-group (or in this particular case, a product which is similar but significantly "cheaper").  The competing product may be an alternative accreditation similar in value to that offered by public schools. It could also involve providing their membership with an equal chance of getting into post-secondary school or getting a job.  It should be noted, if norm deviation is large enough, or large-group vs. small-group competition is fierce enough, institutionalized education can curtail alternative post-secondary entrance paths and many job paths from small-groups with devastating effectiveness.
    3. The selective pressures associated with going-it-alone suggests that if small-group amalgamation is possible, it is likely to be favourable.  Thus one would expect to see charter schools which forgo niche specialization bubbling together.  The process need not be fast.  It could simply involve greater levels of interaction between schools, followed by strategic partnerships, followed by small collective action,... until formal or practical unification occurs.

Extra notes

List & Pettit address the locus of responsibility argument by saying that though actions are committed by individuals within the group, not by the group agent itself, the group agent is responsible for biasing certain eventualities, increasing the probability that its intentions get carried out.  An easy analogy is the extent to which Hezbollah is responsible for any single terrorist bombing.  The group has a clear moral mission which is certainly biased toward such acts.  Leadership may facilitate such acts without ever having to ever pull them pin themselves or do all the planning.

Therefore, in terms of a charter school, emotional and cognitive turmoil could be expressed by the charter school's behaviour (if it is an adaptive group).  According to List & Pettit's exegesis, a group agent's behaviour is mainly centered on a single moral mission formed by its laity.  Actions

List & Pettit argue that group agents are rational, seek information,  distinguish right and wrong, and they can and should be held morally responsible for their actions.  In effect, they see rational group agents as a semi-intoxicated dullard who may be slow on the up-take but ultimately knows what is happening and can distinguish right from wrong (based on its own values and in terms of the social environment in which it acts).

Charter Schools: The Equivalent Focus Case

Part 1 - Framing the situation
Part 2 - Large group orientation
Part 3 - Small group orientation
Part 4 - Equivalent orientations
Part 5 - Evaluating other approaches


If there is minimal difference between a large group orientation in Education and a small group orientation in Education, one would expect to see complex cycling between these two orientations.  Neither one is deterministic.

This might involve self-doubt about how far to push innovation or how deep to streamline membership within an orientationally defined sub-group.

Is Intersectionality a Religion

Over this last year I've been quite happy to see more and more people and academics addressing intersectionality as a religion.  Recently James Lindsay, Helen Puckrose and Peter Boghossian have even held public lectures on this question. The analogy is apt.  More than this though, I think this approach gives the movement space to exist and flourish based on its own merits.

Here's my quick take on why identifying intersectionality as a religion is apt.

It's the Dynamics
How is religion different from traditional political belief (say liberalism)? From position based beliefs (say gun rights)? From weakly moral based belief systems (environmentalism)?

The difference is mainly the level of feedback the group has on the individual. This is largely expressed through

  1. norm and boundary enforcement, 
  2. Moral Big Brother (group agent) roles, and, 
  3. fervency around utopian social states.

Of course lots of other dynamics and behaviours emerge from these big three factors. But they are usually sub-sets.  For example, identity fusion is usually stronger in religious groups than in other groups. But this is probably an emergent property of "big three" interaction.  Ritual is probably a behavioural solution because of how it resonates with these "big three".

It's Not Supernaturalism
Supernaturalism emerges from slight preferences for counter-intuitiveness and Moral Big Brothers.  Supernaturalism mainly makes it easier to learn, understand, predict and enforce group values. The physical embodiment of Moral Big Brothers is one solution to group coherence, moral prediction, and transmission.  And while it may a near inescapable well over long time periods, over shorter time periods strong fervency and norm enforcement may offset the value gained from Big Brother embodiment & visibly wielded supernatural power.

For instance, the New Atheism of the late 2000's was most certainly mimicking the dynamics of evangelical religion. Once it pulled back from zealous proselytizing its utopian state and dropped its polarizing moral judgments, it stopped being religious.  It turned into a weakly moral system.  The dynamics had changed.

Judged on the big three, intersectionality is definitely a religion.

1: Norm Enforcement
Norm enforcement is incredibly high. The demonization of non-intersectionalists is very strong. Over the last year we've seen non-supporters go from being merely naive to being privileged and systemically racist to being white supremacists to being full on nazi's.  Judgements have moved from sins of "commission" (you did something wrong) to sins of "omission" (you didn't support something enough). This is a big change. It also reflects not just simple religious dynamics, but cultish dynamics.

For example, if you fail to acknowledge God at the start of a speech, does that mean you are Godless? Probably not. But for some radical religions, perhaps Islam, it certainly might. Cults typically require frequent admissions of the group's uniqueness and/or key beliefs. Intersectionality falls into the cult spectrum here (as do many new religious movements....)

Another point to look for with norm enforcement is how they treat apostates. Intersectionality is pretty nasty here. You typically lose your "race card" (or sex, gender, etc.) when holding the wrong political/moral positions.

2: Moral Big Brother
Intersectionality definitely nails moral big brother dynamics. No expansion seems necessary.

3: Utopian Fervency
Intersectionality definitely nails this too. There is a definite expectation that past balances need to be offset. A focus on equality of outcomes over equality of opportunity is most definitely classical utopianism. The transformational change assumptions of the movement also clearly reflect classical utopianism. Speaker de-platforming, mob-like marches & protests reflect fervency.

Costly sacrifices, often in the form of "virtue signals" clearly reflect high levels of fervency.


Andrew Sullivan has a popular, but definitely non-academic take on the topic.

Lauren Nelson takes the opposite view of Sullivan. 

Her critique mainly centres around a tight interpretation of intersectionality rather than the broader moral movement circumscribed by adherence to intersectional dogma. Thus her rejoinder is mostly moot and largely a strawman. It is also interesting to note that her major foci seem to be on intention, and supernaturalism.  Just because you don't want something to operate a certain way doesn't mean it does not.  She omits any real discussion of dynamics. This is the real crux. Antifa as an non-aligned outlier.  Ironically though, she ends with an accusation of taboo and blasphemy. This is probably more telling that her fairly weak arguments.

At best she is arguing necessary and sufficient definitions of religions (it must have all these factors) rather than the more appropriate necessary but not sufficient definition (it should have a number of these factors). Of course I, like I suspect Lindsay, take a dynamical rather than factor approach. Religion is anything which has certain dynamics which clearly emerge from the "big three".

Brydum & Derkacz
An even weaker critique by Brydum and Derkacz is here.  Here is an example

"But after taking stock of one’s privilege and identifying the ways it functions in day-to-day life, intersectionality challenges us to find ways to leverage that privilege in the pursuit of greater social justice and not, as Sullivan seems to believe, to simply feel badly about it or to self flagellate. " 

So you see, intersectionality can't be a religion because it has good intentions....

It also can't be a religion because it makes "factually correct" statements against Charles Murray's Bell Curve....

A quick summary of some of Haidt's points which tend to focus on dynamical similarities

A very good analysis at, MTV of all places.  The main point is to think about intersectionality's/social justice's desire to do good and serve just as much as you worry about tight norm enforcement.

Fringe Moderate
From the twitter thread.  This is obviously very superficial stuff...

[1] Original sin - privilege/whiteness Haram/sin - "problematic" Fatwas/disfellowships - public shaming campaigns Special revelation - standpoint theory, "listen & believe" Blasphemy - unPC words, cultural appropriation Caste system - progressive stack or "Oppression Olympics"

[2] Asceticism/legalism - constant reflection on privilege, "everything is sexist, racist...", the "personal is political" The Devil - The Patriarchy, white cis men Holy/sacred place - safe spaces High priests - diversity officers, media personalities, activists, academics

[3] Proselytizing - infiltration in institutions, subcultures Born again - "woke" Self flagellation - whiteness & privilege workshops for "allies" Heaven on earth - Brave New World-esque anarchic utopia Public expression of piety - virtue signaling Infidel - problematic person

[4] Crusade/holy war/jihad - campus protests, Antifa riots Theology - critical race theory Antiscience/creationism - postmodern rejections of empiricism Hypocrisy of thought leaders (Jimmy Swaggart) - prominent male feminists caught in sexual harassment/misconduct scandals

[5] That's all I can think of for now. Perhaps we'll see new parallels in future SJW generations. Maybe they'll appoint a Supreme Matriarch (like a Caliph or Pope) from someone high on the progressive stack to arbitrate disputes or dictate norms or something...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Levels of Selection & Progressivism

In trying to understand progressivism's simulataneous embracement of tribalism and cosmopolitanism, I think I've finally come to a frame that makes sense for me.

From a levels of selection perspective, we're currently operating at a nation state level polity. The US is obviously overly-stretched by this. Is this due to its 300M+ size, geographical separation, or untenable diversity with low social coherence capital levels?

A levels of selection frame suggests looking for US and other stable nation states to start experimenting with larger unions. The EU experiment is one case. NAFTA can be seen as a nascent step down this path.

The level down from the current US nation state level is pre-civil war state polities united by weak federal bonds.

Of course it never makes sense to view progressivism as a simple case of anti-federalism. That is just ludicrous.

But imagine if instead of simply going up or down a level of selection, you bifurcate between both.... (if you've been following my draft work on Quasi-factual Metaphorical Truths, you'll obviously see where this muse came from)

I now believe many versions of progressivism are after chiefdom dynamic polities operating under a pan national opened bordered cosmopolitanism. Here is how I imagine this odd solution to look.

You would have first nation reservations operating as fairly autonomous units. They can certainly partner up in multi-tribal groups (say all Assiniboine), but such interactions would be largely due to convenience rather than via formal governance agreements.  Similarly you would have a rise of city states. For instance greater Vancouver might be one polity. Hope and maybe Abbotsford would be different polities. After all, the politics of large urban centres are VERY different from more rural areas.  There might even be non-geographically constrained units self-selected by ideology.

The key feature of these units is their responsive governance. The people remain a very real unit of control (sort of how Iceland is so responsive). Politicians have direct contact with their constituents and people are able to exert extremely strong social control over them. Ideological homogeneity would be pretty strong (or at least it is imagined that it would be)

These polities are subsumed by a legislatively weak pan federal entity. This would likely handle all the "human rights" concerns. Of course "human rights" would be broadly construed - right to travel (road maintenance, etc), right to work (whatever that might entail, etc.), etc.

Like most people I probably would have scoffed at this idea some time ago. I certainly think there are huge issues with operationalization. However, when understanding social systems, especially those highly influenced by Utopian thinking, it is never wise to reject things because of logistical concerns.

Whether or not this could work, I believe many people think it could. Not only that, I suspect many people think it is the only way things might work.

The critiques of this system of governance are clear and obvious. My point isn't to evaluate this idea. Rather, it is to suggest that this multi-level frame might make it easier to understand how various progressive ideologies may view these issues.

For instance, the reading I've been doing lately on Indigenous epistemologies really makes me think this perspective is an accurate reading. If you were to try and decolonize indigenous perspectives on tribal society based upon taken-for-granted levels of intra-group sociality, what would you get?

Chances are you would get an assumption that groups of people can work together provided their leaders are responsive to their needs and concerns. You would also have an assumption that neighbouring groups wouldn't fight. Why would they? Cooperation is productive and each group is getting what they need (local responsiveness). After all, the government isn't sending soldiers around to keep Abbotsford from invading Vancouver.

You would also get an assumption that power in the hands of a government actor is just a continuation of colonialism. The only way to get rid of this structure is to get rid of nationalism itself.  Pan nationalism then would focus on what people need, not what is needed to govern them.

All in all, a very interesting thought experiment to pursue.  All it really takes is an ability to discount the ability of individuals to re-create internal nation states and an ability to discount the chance external nation states will attack and colonize.  These are pretty easy assumptions to make from within this world view.

2min decolonization video

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Quasi-factual Lynchpins

Last post I tried to sketch out a a brief case for the stabilization of quasi-factual metaphorical truths (QFMT’s) as group based moral slogans.  The main idea was that the utility of low risk signaling when combined with the known  memetic fitness of slightly counter-intuitive ideas would, when driven by repeated orientational shifts between adjacent levels of selection, produce quasi-factual moral slogans/memes that had a core metaphorical truth complimented by a double entendre lynchpin surface.  The archetypical core should reflect tension between the two adjacent levels of selection and convey some practical universal truths.

This didn’t work.  The lynchpin idea failed pragmatic review. Neither was there clear emergence of a strong archetypical core.

However, what did seem to come out of this first round of tests was the possibility for the evolution of lynchpins themselves.  This is what I’ll expand on.

Lynchpins & Multi-level Selection
The main idea of multi-level selection is that there is always tension between adjacent “group” levels. This means an individual is torn between doing what is best for them by working for the benefit of a large group and doing what is best for them by working for the benefit of a smaller group which is more contextually responsive.

As numerous gene-culture co-evolution papers and simulations suggest, large groups require fairly loose norm enforcement. Without this looseness they just can’t grow very big. But too much looseness leads to catastrophic decline.  There is a balance between rigidity and looseness. The stabilization of larger groups requires some significant gene-culture selection working on individuals.

The tension between value of loose universalism and tight boundaries produces a cyclic evolutionary cycle. 

Let’s start at the presence of distinct splinter groups. When there are multiple groups competing against each other, one stable solution is pluralism. The groups come to terms with interactional norms. For instance, following the US robber baron era citizens were very divided on systemic progression barriers and the role of individual skill and industry. The formulization of the American Dream is a moral laden presentation of this tension which focusses on universalizing morals which incentivize effort by clearly stating that it should be rewarded when complimented by ability.  This can be seen as a pluralistic value statement.  It is highly generalized and clearly universalistic.  Disagreeing with this statement can be seen to put you far outside the purview of what can be feasibly accommodated (at least for the era of good will –late 1930’s to early 1990’s).

But universalism complimented by loose norm enforcement is, over time, problematic. Religion/governance co-evolution suggests recurring periods of formalization. This may involve shifts to systemic theology or transparent, perhaps even technocratic, rule of law. Over time, large successful groups formalize with increasingly clear moral statements. These statements are often stark. They enable clear delineations of who is with you and who is not. Creedal statements fit here.

But too much rigidity sews its own seeds of destruction. In complexity theory this happens with the emergence of splinter groups. The sociology of group evolution generally supports this assumption. As does basic organizational theory.  But the self-organization of splinter groups requires signaling mechanisms. The re-interpretation of creedal like moral statements into potential ironic forms enables this signaling.  You can, with a straight face and no “tells”, fully support a given iteration of the creed. This creates problems for technocratic norm enforcement. Are they actually agreeing with you or disagreeing? Individual interaction can usually discern this easily, but the technocratic apparatus of large groups can’t.  The memes afford adherents a technical legalistic escape if needed.

This supports the evolution of splinter groups. They grow in size. Their lynchpins move from caustic irony to unabashed alternatives.

The lynchpin evolution just presented enables some falsifiable predictions.
  1. Well established groups should have moral slogans (QFMT’s) which are fairly stark.
  2. Recent splinter groups should have somewhat ironic QFMT’s with a greater probability of having double entendres.
  3. Ascendant groups should transition from ironic double entendre QFMT’s into universalizing versions.
  4. Universalizing QFMT’s should transition into starker (creedal) expressions.
  5. A group with a highly rigid highly stark creedal QFMT should induce more splinter groups with ironic QFMT’s than a similar less rigid less stark group.

I’ll use my original meme list to select a couple of QFMT’s that have a well known evolution tree.  The ones that stand out to me as being significant and having a potentially traceable history are;
  • ·       Guns don’t kill people, people kill people
  • ·       Fake news
  • ·       American Dream
  • ·       The way FNMI are treated is shameful
  • ·       Only the name Jehovah saves (Jehovah Witness slogan)
  • ·       Joseph Smith restored the gospel (Mormon slogan)

Current phase
(stark, universal, ironic lynchpin)
Predicted Recent Phase
Likely Recent Phase
Validity of Relevant Predictions
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people
Ironic lynchpin

same idea from US slave era

“a sword is never a killer, it’s a tool in the killer’s hands” – early Roman era
2 – recent splinters should have double entendres QFMT’s

3 – ironic lynchpins transition to universal QFMT’s

Gun rights groups seem to be struggling to find a less controversial slogan for this idea

Anti-gun groups seem to want to keep this meme as counter-factual as possible

5 - Rigid creeds should produce more splinters with more ironic lynchpins
It is hard to say what the parent group of modern gun right groups are. They likely emerged after the 1968 gun control act and tensions from 60’s social reforms. The 80’s saw another resurgence of gun right issues.

Fake news
Ironic lynchpin
Stark creed
Stark creed

Journalists are the arbiters of truth.
2 – recent splinters should have double entendres QFMT’s
This is a recent splinter idea & nascent group.

The meme first came from Hillary’s Clinton’s campaign in relation to pro-Trump news, especially that by Fox news and conservative talk radio.

3 – ironic lynchpins transition to universal QFMT’s
not relevant.

This splinter is too new.  However, it seems likely the fake news meme will evolve into a larger meta-truth that “all” media is politicized one way or another.

5 - Rigid starks should produce more splinters with more ironic lynchpins

It is hard to assess if journalism’s hold on a moral high for fairness was or was not overly stark. Chances are it was not nearly as stark as comparable religious beliefs. However, people who have doubted the fairness of the media have often been vilified. Attacks were perceived to challenge the very nature upon which modern democracies depend.
American Dream
(everyone can succeed by hard work & skill)
Ironic lynchpin
Ironic lynchpin

While this meme’s evolutionary history is uncertain, it emerged during the reconciliation phase of 1900’s era labour conflicts.  It is doubtful that it was a purposefully ironic statement. Rather, it was a statement about more personal fulfillment that was easily adoptable by the material focus of the war era.
3 – ironic lynchpins transition to universal QFMT’s

4  - Universals transition to Creedal QFMT’s

This meme seems to be bifurcating between those who interpret it very ironically (MAGA reactionaries) and those who desire it to be a creedal like test of citizenship (MAGA zealots)
The way FNMI (indigenous people) are treated is shameful
Ironic lynchpin / Universal
Ironic lynchpin
2 – recent splinters should have double entendres QFMT’s


This is a recent reformulation of the idea that everyone should be treated equally. While it appears to jump straight to a Universal level, getting pulled back by a-progressive conservatives, I believe it may have actually emerged as an ironic reaction to statements that natives were getting too many benefits that non-native Canadians were not. Thus it may have been a purposeful double entendre to trump and co-opt the extreme conservative meme.

4  - Universals transition to Creedal QFMT’s

This idea is quickly emerging as a creedal test. This interpretation yields a very stark creedal meme.
Only the name Jehovah saves
Stark creed

While I’m not as up on my Jehovah Witness history as I could be, from what I know this meme started as, most religious break-aways do, as a confluence of lynchpins.  The most successful of these was then universalized and entangled with the evolution of a distinct moral system.  The importance of this “slogan” increased and it now functions as a creedal statement.
1 – The QFMT’s of well established groups are fairly stark & creedal in nature
This group is about 150 years old.

5 - Rigid creeds should produce more splinters with more ironic lynchpins

There are a few break away’s from this group, but not many. Especially for the known rigidness of group norms.  The few break aways I could find mainly focused on lynchpin interpretations of specific scriptures. 
Joseph Smith restored the Gospel
Stark creed

Joseph Smith’s reformation-restoration was based upon the lynchpin of modern revelation. The idea of modern revelation was a universal point during 19th century American great religious awakenings.
1 – The QFMT’s of well established groups are fairly stark & creedal in nature
This group is about 175 years old. The restoration, Book of Mormon and other unique Mormon positions associated with Joseph Smith’s role create a fairly stark creed.

5 - Rigid creeds should produce more splinters with more ironic lynchpins
There are a few modern break away’s from this group, but accurate comparisons to Jehovah Witness break away numbers is difficult.  It is also hard to judge whether Mormon orthodoxy is more rigid than Jehovah Witness orthodoxy. I lean to saying it is less rigid, but this is uncertain.  But in general the low number of break aways falsifies the prediction.

However, break aways do occur on lynchpin issues. However, it is hard to discern if they emerged via double entendre signaling.