Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Intelligent Design Gets Fooled by Randomness

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.  New York: Random House, 2004.  ISBN 0812975219.

Every moment of my life, I make bets with the universe.  If it is cold, I bet it will stay that way for a certain amount of time, and I wear warm clothes.  If I need to get somewhere, I bet my car will work (or take the bus or the train).  If I enter a relationship with another person voluntarily, I bet its overall effect on my existence will be more positive than negative.  If I feel hungry, I eat something (or don't), betting that eating (or fasting) will make me feel better.  Sometimes, my bets pay off: I get more upside than downside from exposure to the reality I don't really understand.  Eating (or fasting) makes me feel good.  Other times, my bets do not pay off: I get more downside than upside from exposure to the reality I don't understand.  Eating (or fasting) makes me sick.

Some time near the dawn of my adolescence, I picked up the idea that there exists out there in the universe a betting strategy that would provide only upside--no downside at all (or at least, no downside worth considering: the upside would be so good that it would always pay gamblers like me more than it cost).  This idea was intuitive--it was a story I was inclined to tell myself by nature--and it was reinforced by my education, especially my religious education (which told me that my perfect betting strategy existed and was the restored gospel of Jesus Christ preached by the Latter-day Saints).

The LDS church (that I was brought up in) offered me a fixed strategy for making bets with the universe.  If you reduce this LDS strategy down to its essence, it looks something like this: (i) never do anything you feel bad about (bad feelings are a sign from God that a bet is evil); (ii) follow the prophets, no matter what (the prophets will never lead the faithful astray: their bets will always yield more upside than downside).  I placed many bets with this strategy over the course of my adolescence and young adulthood.  Some of them paid off (more upside than downside).  Others did not.  I was told that the downside from these bad bets would even out eventually, that losses did not matter, that they were Satan trying to mislead me (away from the one true strategy for making bets with the universe).  I should just take my losses, no matter what they were, and have faith that the upside would appear, eventually, and erase the debts that were starting to destroy my life's accumulation of moral capital.  For a while, this rhetorical placebo worked ("eat your losses, and God will make them up to you"), but there came a moment in my life when it didn't--a moment when my losses were too catastrophic to be ignored, a moment when it was painfully clear to me that I needed to change some of my bets with the universe or go morally bankrupt.  I had a moral crisis, what some call a crisis of faith.

Nassim Taleb tells my same story, in a different environment: Wall Street.  In brief, some Wall Street traders are kind of like religious fanatics (of the species I represent).  They make bets with the universe, as we all do, and when their bets are bad, they double down.  "My betting strategy is perfect.  I have constructed it painstakingly, rationally, conscientiously--and any losses I take will ultimately be offset by even larger profits!"  Blah, blah.  The worst of these traders were those who traded with others' money (e.g. investment bankers attempting to game the market with the life's savings of ignorant bank customers).  These guys could lose all their clients' money several times over (as some of them did), still believe in the truth of their bad betting strategy (which after all remains as logical, precise, and mathematical after losing money as it was before), and (worst) walk away with their own fortunes intact (even if they could never get employment as traders after their catastrophic losses).  These smug SOBs screwed their clients over, big time, and felt absolutely no compunction about doing it--because they believed uncritically in the absolute truth of their betting strategies.  Every time I read this story I am struck with how relevant it is--not just to my religious life, but to life in general.

As a result of my personal experiences, including my encounter with Nassim Taleb's work, I have realized something important about myself.  I don't trust any fixed betting strategy to deliver more upside than downside.  I don't care who tells me a story: I do not ever want to bet on a single story being so true that I can accept it without criticism (without taking out insurance somewhere, for when it turns out to be false).  When I was young, I believed in a universe of order--a just world that makes sense, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked (eventually).  I no longer believe in that universe.  I have seen too many good people go under, and too many successful morons (including evil morons).  And I have learned that people all have different betting strategies (even individual LDS take the generic Mormon model and use it differently) and that these are all more similar than different.  Mormonism is more like Catholicism or Protestantism or Islam or Buddhism or even atheism than it is unlike them.  All -isms originate as ideas in the human mind, which leaves recognizable generic traces (no matter what particular story it tells in any given instance).  When you look honestly into history, it is patently obvious that the human mind is not a key to clear understanding of absolute reality.  Ideas are cheap.  Logical, linear ideas creating logical, linear maps of reality are cheap: they appear all over the place (in Mormonism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, and any other -ism anyone can think of ever).  Results are what matter.  Change your ideas to match the results, not the other way round.  Ideas are like quicksand, inherently unstable and dangerous (no matter what they are or who has them or what methods he claims to use to get at them).

There is a fundamental insight here, something deeper than the silly ideological wars between competing -isms.  The fundamental insight is that reality is an open, chaotic system, not a closed, orderly one.  No matter how nice some story sounds in the classroom (or the chapel or the lab or the boardroom), it is guaranteed to be false in some way.  Logic is nice, and we should use it, but we should also use our eyes.  You can lie with logic (and math and science as these exist among human beings) as easily as with any other language (logic is a language, like math and Spanish and Latin).  Some lies are more harmful than others.  The worst lies are those that people don't question, those that escape recognition and get accepted as some kind of absolute, fundamental truth.  The worst lie is the one that says you can make bets with the universe that have no downside, no unexpected results, no risk for doing real damage.  Historically, there is no such thing as a bet with the universe that life wins unconditionally: all species go extinct, like all companies, churches, nations, and -isms.  But the successful people never see this.  The gamblers who staked it all and won don't realize that they win because they are lucky: they preach about how to succeed ("just make bets like I did! playing Russian roulette worked great for me, and if you have the right moral fiber, it will work for you, too!").  The losers know to question their strategies.  They see that their smarts don't work, that their logic is flawed, that reality remains opaque to the human mind (whether that mind approaches it through Mormonism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, atheism, or any other -ism: it doesn't matter which ideological horse you ride, you are never guaranteed to find happiness, at all).  But the winners don't get it. 

The winners talk about "intelligent design" as something real, and verifiable by recourse to simple observation.  "See this awesome company I have built," Dick Fuld says of Lehman Brothers.  "My partners and I had this great vision, and the brilliant piece of work you see before you is a result of our intelligent design" (the same kind of intelligent design that produces Paley's watch or Behe's cell or any other complex product of any process anyone wants to imagine).  Then the thing unexpectedly goes bankrupt.  What happened?  Where is the intelligent design?  Here apologists for the really just world I used to believe in typically come up with some kind of rational, logical deus ex machina to save their Intelligent Designer (whom we may as well call God) from being dumb the way all intelligent designers we see in history appear dumb.  "My CEO is not fooled by randomness the way Dick Fuld was.  Fuld was a loser, but my CEO is a winner.  Read his latest book!  It will show you how his design is really intelligent, fundamentally different from the flawed logic used by idiots like Fuld."  You can ride this train as many times as you like, picking a new guru (a new Intelligent Designer) every time your old one blows up.  If you're lucky, yours may never blow up (in your lifetime, anyway): you might be able to use his strategy to place bets that turn out well for you, randomly, because sometimes bets turn out well.  Success happens (I almost added "unfortunately").  You can play Russian roulette and win--even win big: that doesn't make it a good strategy to recommend to others who want to enjoy your kind of success.

At the end of the day, I really like paganism--the extinct Greek and Roman variety, especially--as an -ism for modeling the way I see the world.  The Greek god of just order is Zeus.  He makes sure that good guys win and bad guys lose.  But he is not omnipotent.  The rest of his family have will too (and often oppose him directly), and there are always Titans looking to rebel and destroy his fragile, temporal order.  In addition to all that, there lurks behind his throne the prophecy (preserved by Prometheus) that one day a son will overthrow him (the way he overthrew his father back in the day).  He is a realistic kind of intelligent designer--a gambler who places bets (attempting to effect order) that will not always pay off.  If there is a god ruling over the mess that is real life, this is what he looks like: he is not someone you can rely on for perfect stability.  From my perspective, there is nobody you can rely on uncritically for perfect stability--no person, no ideology, and no god (whether gods are real or not: it doesn't matter).  Real life is not about picking one strategy for placing bets and then insisting on that strategy dogmatically until you die (particularly if said strategy leads you to blow up: it would be sheer madness to continue killing yourself merely for an idea--no matter how pretty or logical it might appear).

I don't see myself as an opponent of religion or science, per se.  I don't have a problem with people placing bets that they like with the universe.  But I am a resolute opponent of people who think they have discovered "the secret" to winning Nature's game.  I mistrust priests and scientists.  I think it a virtue to doubt them, not embrace them and their (dangerous) ideas uncritically.  The best among them share my fear (and take measures to prevent their inevitable mistakes from hurting other people unnecessarily); the worst demand respect that they never earn (trying to bully me into making the bets they would on the grounds that they are "smarter" than I am because of some stupid ideology they like, an ideology which might be religious or scientific, Mormon or non-Mormon, skeptical or not: it doesn't matter, and I don't care).  In short, my moral crisis did not lead me to change allegiance from one god to another (who might be the devil).  What changed for me was the way in which I look at all gods, especially when they come to me strongly recommended by people looking to influence my moral behavior.  I mistrust people (including myself).  I think people are fools--lovable fools when they get their own lives wrong, dangerous fools when they try to make me make the same mistakes they are making because some god (or non-god) wills it.  Authoritarian bastards are authoritarian bastards, no matter what rhetoric they use to make themselves (and their followers) feel good about it.  I don't follow any of them (until I have to, because they will kill or ostracize me otherwise, and I want to live).  I don't love them.  I don't agonize over whether we should pick one over another (voting for the lesser of two evils).  They are all bastards.  They are all dangerous.  I am always against them, no matter what nifty rhetorical guise they use to cover up their bullshit.  They can be as religious or scientific as they please.  They can plead priesthood or democracy or logic or whatever the hell they want, and I will still refuse to bend the knee.  They can nail me to a rock and have the eagle tear my liver (as Zeus did to Prometheus), and I will die despising them for it.      

Friday, January 25, 2013

Love Is Not My Answer

"He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37 KJV).

This scripture is an interesting one, about which I have had occasion to think quite a bit over the past few years.  Here are some insights that have come to me, as a result of my personal experience with religion, family, and the community at large. 

The family is a problematic institution, historically. The love that it produces turns easily into hatred. The peace that it cultivates often produces seeds of war. Saints and ascetics have been trying to tame the wild human family for years (castrating it, chaining it, smothering it, attacking it with violent hatred or seducing it with sweet love). It is a myth that religion and the family are peaceful companions on the road to heaven. A nice myth. But reality shows that they are enemies more than friends, and the family doesn't always fight on the right side (any more than religion does: we all fight dirty eventually).

Read in a positive light, I think anti-family Jesus is appealing to people to step outside their tribalism (outside the mafia that is "the family" so often in history), recognizing that the other guy out there has a family just as real and worth preserving as yours. (Hector has a family as real, human, and valuable as the family of Achilles.) I support this kind of reasoning, up to a certain point: there is a limit to the pain I am willing to cause my own family in order to avoid hurting yours.

This limit is part of what holds me back from embracing "pure compassion" as preached in some Buddhist sects, or "the pure love of Christ" as it often appears historically (usually in contexts like the monastery, where the family is something dangerous and suspicious that we would do better to avoid). I don't have an equal love for all beings. I care about the things close to me (that I am conscious of) more. I love my people more than the people I have never met. I don't see this distinction as completely overcomable (and I actually embrace it, within certain limits: I accept that there are and must be limits to the lengths I am willing to go to defend my private love; I see that love is not equal, fair, or nice all the time, and I strive to keep my love as docile as possible).

For me, part of the process of growing up has been sorting out explicitly where I stand vis-a-vis my family, myself, and the community at large. I cannot help loving myself. But I can doubt my self-love as something useful when it causes me to do others obvious, unnecessary harm. I cannot help loving my family. But I can doubt my family-love when it causes me to do others obvious, unnecessary harm. I cannot help loving my community (less than I love myself or my family--that's simply how I roll). But I can doubt my community-love when it causes me to do others (including myself) obvious, unnecessary harm.  I cannot help loving.  But I can stop loving blindly, reflexively, unconditionally.

I have realized that love is not the answer. It is the question, often, but as an answer it is very dangerous (precisely because it has an historical tendency to turn into vicious, violent hatred: the worst crimes in history are those that come from love, with the worst love being the love for community that loses sight of the individual utterly out of an awfully pure desire to save and exalt the collective).

If I had to respond to anti-family Jesus, who invites me to follow him, giving up my love for family in order to replace it with love for God, this is what I would say.  "In my experience, the best answer for one love is not another one. A better answer than love is indifference, doubt, hesitation, inaction. 'Do unto others as you would that they did unto you,' you say? Better not to do unto them, say I.  Let them be, and keep out of it until you see an obvious need that you can meet--because somebody needs it, not because you love them. Leave love out of it!  She is too wild and dangerous.  Her remedies are worse than the diseases they pretend to cure."

The more experience I accumulate, the more important it seems to me to notice that there is no such thing as life without death, success without failure, love without hatred.  Another way to put this: the nature of life is to die; the nature of success is to fail; the nature of love is to hate.  I think life makes its own morals, and these are inevitably mortal (causing death as well as survival: we live by making other things die, then prolong the life of organisms around us by dying ourselves) and parochial (favoring one party or parties at the expense of others: my love for life necessarily means that I long for the death of other things, and eventually for my own death).  In brief, I don't see any possibility for a world in which love (or life) is an unqualified good, something to be embraced without any reserve.  I cannot love God with all my heart, might, mind, and strength, because such love creates a hatred of the Devil that is too powerful.  My unconditional love of God becomes unconditional hatred for all that is Not God, and the danger threatened by this hatred is greater than the safety offered by love, in my experience. 

I do not renounce love, for that is impossible.  But I do renounce unconditional love, reluctantly but firmly.  Such strong brews are not for man (or this man, at any rate: I do not presume to dictate to others; this much love I can offer them!).  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Damn the Singularity

Recently I have run into this thing known as "the Singularity."  To me it seems fishy: here are my reasons (for the moment; in the conversation where these ideas came up, the topic of discussion was immortality, which I abjure).

Every historical development in technology ever seen has been accompanied by unexpected "evil" effects. To get to the heart of the matter immediately at hand, the advances of modern medical science have come to us at the expense of iatrogenics. There is no such thing in history as an upside without a downside, a pro without a con.

More importantly, when we come to consider systems as complex as the human body (or any ecosystem whose existence requires the cooperation of multitudes of cells and cycles), we have a species-wide tendency to think reductively (trying to explain non-linear realities in terms of linear causality, as though the reasons for a particular biological phenomenon--like, say, schizophrenia--were unitary and constant for all cases, such that my schizophrenia occurs because of the same generic malfunctions that cause yours: research is showing that this idea is simply bullshit; for a very good layman's discussion, see Matt Ridley's chapter "The Madness of Causes" in his book The Agile Gene).

If we build immortality, there is no guarantee that it would ever work for the entire species. Inevitably, the price for making some people immortal will be killing other people (when my immortality becomes your mortality, or vice versa). In a best-case scenario, future generations will be the one eating the bullet here (they will be eliminated, I guess, until we find some other environment for immortal offspring to colonize: Earth is not currently big enough to accomodate an infinite crowd of immortals; if such a group appears, you can be sure that some of them will begin living out the myth of that god-awful TV series "Highlander"). And that is being ridiculously optimistic (i.e. assuming that there are no untoward side-effects en route to the kind of immortality naively imagined by guys like Ray Kurzweil). How is society supposed to exist without death, seriously? If history is any guide, we would become a bunch of petty, selfish bastards (think of the Olympians in the Iliad and the Odyssey: they are basically immortal human beings, and most readers agree they are douchebags).

I am very skeptical of the Singularity. I doubt it will happen (since I don't see death ever being defeated: from my viewpoint, death looks like something permanent in the nature of life). But even if it does, I would reject it (as something bad--Satan's plan, if you will). As an atheist and a materialist, I choose death (which is what makes my life enjoyable, meaningful, and worthwhile: if I were immortal, I would lose my humanity, the heroic vulnerability that gives me integrity).   

These ideas came up in the context of a discussion of Mormonism.  (Some Mormons embrace the Singularity as an affirmation of their beliefs, e.g. the idea that we will eventually become gods and inhabit a glorified world.)  Some see a great divide between Mormonism and the Singularity, but I don't.  Here is why.

To my mind, the value that Mormonism adds to this conversation is that it reminds us how dumb we really are. The Singularity, in my mind, is just a modern version of the same stupid ideas that found a home earlier in Mormonism. Joseph Smith was a progressive in his time, a visionary who wanted to marry naive human fantasies (like living forever or having group orgies without any unpleasant repercussions) with practical reality. He is one illustration of the weakness (or as Nassim Taleb would say, the fragility) inherent in this kind of approach.

Nature is bigger than us, even if we are all brilliant scientists (and we're not). Cheating her is dumb. You can try it if you want, but I will always bet against you (as I bet against Joseph Smith). I think history will show the Singularity to be as silly as Mormonism, a piece of twenty-first-century lunacy that future generations will shake their heads over the same way I shake my head over early Mormons hieing to Kolob.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Family Is Perishing! So What?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the demise of the family.  It is an issue that continues to bother me, especially as demagogues of every political and religious stripe repeatedly invoke it to push through social programs whose positive utility I doubt (even as I see their negative utility clearly in some cases: trying to control the sex lives of your neighbors via legislation causes all kinds of obvious problems, but no clear benefits that I have ever seen).

What are we talking about, in concrete terms, when we invoke the demise of the family?  Many of my friends adopt a position here that looks more or less like this: the population of the First World is dropping precipitately, and we must counteract this by getting married and cranking out more kids, come hell or high water. Assuming that this problem is really a problem and that my procreating wildly would put a dent in it (a rather large assumption), I wonder if it is really good for kids to be born into a society where they exist merely as stop-gaps: "We had you because we need to make sure our genes don't get diluted by weirdos who aren't like us." I am not sure I like this as an approach to procreation. I doubt its utility for the population as a whole (stuff happening in the global community occurs outside of anyone's agenda), and I really doubt its utility for individuals (who might not have the resources for the giant families that God seems to want them to have: do we all have to live like farmers in Bangladesh? is that God's plan? really?).

To me it seems that the family has always been falling apart. Read what prudes wrote about the collapse of morals among the working class in the nineteenth century.  They said all the same kinds of things we hear today about families in the inner city.  Somehow, despite the collapse of the family before I was born, I managed to make it into the world--into a nice family--and do pretty well.  So far, my kids are getting lucky, too, though there are fewer of them: my wife isn't prepared to crank them out the way my mom was (she isn't physically fit for that task, for starters), and I am not rich the way my dad was (for many reasons).  Society now is much different than it was, and no amount of hand-wringing by the Barack Obamas and Rick Santorums of the world is going to change that reality: they can cook up schemes to make me more educated and better housed all day long, but wishing won't make it so.  I know I cannot afford a house, and that paying for more school would be a wasted investment, and I am moving on. Screw the American dream.

I am tired of living in somebody else's world, an old man's world in which you can interview with a company on the spur of the moment, right before you graduate with a BA, and then work there for the next fifty years (the way my grandfather did).  That was great, when it happened.  But life
went on.  History happened.  That world is over, finished and done just like the Roman empire (or the Confederate States of America, or the Soviet Union, or the Mormon state of Deseret).  I am tired of being told that my mission in life is to revive it, no matter what the cost to those I hold near and dear.  I am tired of being expected to sacrifice all I have (and all that my kids will ever have: hello crushing debt!) so that old farts can go to fancy malls and pretend that the Great Depression never happened.  Screw that.  Here's a thought: life is not static.  The family participates in life, ergo families aren't static.  This is even true if we make people immortal (since we're Mormons and we like to think this way). The relationship between Jesus and God the Father is not the same since Jesus got nailed to the cross.  You don't just pick up where you left off and pretend that kind of thing never happened.  Life is about moving on (inherently, necessarily).  I will not relate to my kids the same way I do now in twenty years (assuming we last that long in this world).  I don't relate to my parents the same way now as I did when I was five years old.  If eternity is our destiny, then I expect my post-mortal relationship with my family will go on evolving: after an infinity of years (measured by any standard you like, human or divine: but let's say KST, Kolob Standard Time), my family relationships will have shifted infinitely.  My family will be destroyed and rebuilt all the time, essentially--the same way my body is destroyed and rebuilt regularly.  That is what life is, and if there is such a thing as eternal life I know of no other way to conceive it than as an indefinite progression of what already happens.

Immortality is just mortality with no ending.  Once you see that, these arguments about "the destruction of the family" become ridiculous. Is the family always going to be falling apart?  Then why save it?  I just don't have the energy to get worked up every time another demagogue tells me that I have to give him time and money and votes or my family will implode.  It's like they want me to spend all my time standing in a highway, staring down the oncoming traffic and screaming, "Yikes! I'm going to die!"  Eventually, my hormonal pathways are all exhausted and I embrace the inevitable: "Yikes.  I really am going to die (unless I find something better to do than stand in the highway screaming with these crazy people)." You can only spend so much time scared to death, even when the threat is real. Fear isn't static any more than life is.  It comes and goes, rising and falling in dynamic waves whose very nature is to avoid static equilibrium (in spite of all the bloviating and hand-wringing of priests and politicians since the dawn of history).

Here's a thought.  The next time somebody tells me that the family is dying, I am going to smile and walk away.  Then I am going to find my kids and give them a hug.  I am going to find my wife, and give her a kiss.  And then I am going to spend a tender, thoughtful moment embracing the reality that we won't always be the people we are right now.  How grand!  Just think that everything wrong with us right now will not always be wrong.  Time will pass.  Stuff will happen.  Our problems will move on with it.  We will find new things, new successes and new problems.  We will do our best to meet them, and then life will go on (with or without us: it doesn't really matter; we cannot last longer than we last or do better than our best).  When I do reach the end of my life on earth, I don't want to look back on a history of fear. 

I don't want to spend my whole life running from the mortality of my relationships.  (No matter what they are today, they will change in the coming years.  Always.  Dying and being reborn as something new, unless you kill them dead and embalm them to keep them from evolving.)  I don't want to look back and remember only that I was terribly scared of losing everyone and everything that ever mattered to me.  I want to look back and feel grateful for all the good things I had, good things that came to me as gifts--unexpected, unsought, unearned, but no less sweet for all that.  I want to leave my kids with an appreciation for life's fragile, temporary joys rather than an expectation that these last forever, uninterrupted by any change or sorrow.  I don't know whether life is immortal or not.  But if you know how to take the good with the bad--the sweet with the bitter, the way life mixes things all the time--then you will always be fine.  If you last forever, you will know how to endure eternity without wishing for death.  If one death is the end of you, then you will know how to meet it with joy, having made the most of your experiences.  I have made my peace with my life--with my family and myself and the world around me as it exists right now--so the demagogues have nothing to offer me (no matter what they claim to stand for: I don't care).  If they are really interested in defending my family, then they would do best to leave us all alone; when we need their help, we will come asking for it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Does God Exist? Why I Don't Care.

This was written for a family member determined to bring me back into the fold of believers (where I may still be: I am not precisely certain what tokens of "real faith" I lack; the only crimes I can find in my behavior seem like virtues to me, e.g. I refuse to say that I think as I do not, and I remain open to polite discussion with believers and atheists of all stripes alike--and find much to appreciate among individuals on both sides of all these arguments).

The deity I believe in doesn't need me to believe in it.  It doesn't care what I think, about anything.  It knows (as I am slowly coming to realize) that thoughts are just limited impressions (faithful impressions at best, but even then they are never going to tell you "the truth" about the way things are).  I haven't decided I don't need god(s), since any gods out there don't care what I decide (and my decision would be silly: why would I make such a decision?  I haven't decided that we are the only life-forms in the universe either, or that I am never going to eat toast no matter what happens).  Worldviews are diametrically opposed, but the world isn't.  It is just there, being what it is, no matter what rubbish anybody thinks about it.  I don't believe in any worldview whole-heartedly.  I think they all have their merits and demerits, as indexes to the world (which is more real than any of them will ever be).  I like using them when they help me and avoiding them when they hurt me (in real life: I am about living more than I am about developing a blueprint for life). 

I live my life based in faith (trust, confidence, experience), the same as every other person I have ever met (as far as I can tell).  I trust some people more than others.  I trust some stories more than others sometimes, too, but I don't have an unshakable commitment to any story.  They are all true and false, in my eyes.  The answer to the question, "Is there a god?" is really "Why should I care?"  From there you get on to the practical things that God's existence is supposed to entail.  As long as God's existence entails me doing things consonant with my integrity, then I am happy to call myself his friend.  When his existence begins requiring me to sin against my honor, however, I become his enemy.  I don't care whether he exists or not.  (Of course reality exists!  God is just another word for reality.  Richard Dawkins is a fool waging a crusade against Santa because he cannot understand Christmas.  Unfortunately, many people who love Christmas seem to be just as shallow and silly as he is: they think defending Christmas from his idiotic onslaught requires proving that there really is a Santa like the one he imagines.  Gah!  The whole charade makes me alternately sick with disgust and giddy with mirth.  People are so dumb!  But such is life, I guess.)

I don't love my family because somebody has come up with a mathematical equation proving to me that they exist (for reals).  The god I believe in is like you (personally): he doesn't care (or even know) what scientists and theologians are doing with their little games, cheap parlor-tricks that have somehow become so expensive in recent times.  Anyone can believe whatever nonsense he pleases about the gods, and they don't care.  They just do their god thing, and let us do our human one (until our time runs out).  The point is to be a good person, not to know the truth about gods--which is unknowable, especially if divinity is really the uncreated, inaccessible mystery that some people want it to be: I am open to experiencing the company of a being who isn't there the way we are, but how would that happen, really?  How would I experience something so outside my experience?  If the answer is that I do it by believing in the literal truth of bed-time stories, then I have to laugh.  I simply cannot do that.  Assuming he exists, God would understand.  I love you, not because of theories or arguments or some such claptrap, but because I know you, personally and intimately, in a way that circumvents all arguments and evidence and nonsense.  I will always love you, even if at some point in time you don't exist.  Existing is not the point.  Arguments over existence mean very little to me any more.  They are a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing except the small-mindedness of those who take them too seriously.

The Wisdom of Mirth

Friedrich Nietzsche.  Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.  Trans. W. Kaufmann.  New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.  ISBN: 1400067820.

It was mere coincidence that I happened to read these two books together, coincidence that almost makes you believe in deity (since they go together so well, with Taleb even recommending Nietzsche's writings as containing some of the clearest anticipations of his ideas that he has uncovered). There is much I could say about either book, and maybe later I will try, but here I just want to talk about one thought that I have after finishing both.

It seems to me that the take-home message from both is that people cannot control outcomes, individually or collectively, but that they can and should aspire to own (and embrace) their destiny.  I cannot control whether I get cancer, but I can and should aspire to bear cancer nobly if it falls to my lot (as it might, in spite of all that I or anyone else might do to prevent it).  We cannot make society safe (from crime or war or drugs or death in any number of forms), but we can and should aspire to make it love nobility.  We can publicly worship those people and values that we love for the good they have done, and we can publicly pillory those we hate (for the good they think they have done, to our harm).  We can show others the gods we worship, and let them decide to worship with us or revile.  If they worship, then we respect their contribution as they make it (demanding nothing from them that they are not comfortable providing).  If they revile, then we respect that contribution (demanding nothing from them that we aren't willing to give them ourselves: they can live in peace, doing whatever nonsense they please, as long as they don't expect us to worship them for it or take any active part ourselves in stupid stuff we don't believe in).

Society isn't about bringing us all together in one big happy family, in which everyone gets along perfectly with everyone else.  Society is about reconciling us all to the fact that this will never happen.  We don't all see eye to eye.  We never have.  We never will.  Some of us have the courage to stand for what we believe in, even when others make that very painful for us.  These people are heroes.  Some of us prefer to wait for someone else to tell us what to believe, what to fight for, how to live.  These people are the mob (who might be scum).

What separates heroes from the mob isn't necessarily what they do (not that that isn't important at all, of course).  It is how they do it.  We all fight for causes, somehow, someway.  Are you a noble fighter?  Do you have respect for those who abstain from your fight for their own noble reasons?  For those who fight on the opposite side because they are convinced that you are a dangerous idiot who deserves to go to hell?  Do you love such people, more than the mob who fancy themselves your friends because they happen to fight on your side--not because it is theirs but because they want to cool?  If so, then you are a hero (no matter what church you belong to, what beliefs you have or don't, what politics you espouse, or what you do for a living: heroism is about playing strong and fair, not being "right" or "winning" or some other such nonsense).

We are all, individually and collectively, characters in stories that we tell one another (and ourselves).  What kind of characters should we be?  Heroes, we say (and so I assume, for the moment: in any case, we all approach the business of storytelling from an egocentric point of view, wondering how we fit in and what good, heroic deeds we should do).  So what kind of heroes should we be?

In my experience, there are two kinds of hero.  One is the tragic hero, who faces the reality that he cannot control outcomes by killing himself in attempt to do so anyway.  ("Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!")  This kind of heroism can be very inspiring (very purely, nobly heroic).  It can also cause a lot of pain and anguish that are not (strictly speaking) necessary (from a point of view like mine: here we enter into my personal views on the best kind of heroism).  If we aspire to become tragic heroes, we run the risk of enhancing our suffering, and perhaps the suffering of those around us.  (The tragic hero wears hair shirts to mortify his flesh when he gets too frisky with joie de vivre.  He puts out his eyes rather than see evil.  He does not take it well when he learns that he has killed his father, slept with his mother, or otherwise broken any custom in the moral code he holds sacred.  He would much rather die than be dishonored.)  That path, noble as I can see that it is (in the examples of men and legends around me, including the legend of Jesus), is not for me.  I prefer another.

My path is the path of the comic hero.  This kind of heroism is not immediately as prepossessing as the tragic variety.  Where the tragic hero faces insuperable odds with Stoic calm and resignation (waiting to commit suicide like Cato when the inevitable happens and Caesar wins), the comic hero prefers jokes and an optimistic cynicism. ("We're really screwed here, but maybe something new turns up unexpectedly to save our sorry butts!")  Humor is the key here, any humor.  Gallows humor.  Slapstick.  The point is to make the show go on.  You can do everything the tragic hero does, if you must, but your attitude is one of cheerful defiance (not heroic resignation).  Instead of acting like Achilles (e.g. Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo"), you emulate Odysseus (e.g. Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry").  Talk is cheap.  So you talk, a lot, and game the system that the tragic hero refuses to dignify with any response other than laconic contempt.  You know you don't control your outcome utterly, but you don't really care.  Instead of tapping your mom and ripping out your eyes, you ride that dung beetle to the throne of Zeus with gusto, and cheerfully accept whatever reception waits.  ("I get to do battle with Ares?  Great!  Sleep with Aphrodite?  Even better!")

Tragedy makes your focus narrow.  You are drawn inexorably toward the doom you cannot avoid, the doom that is written all over your entire world (your family, your people, the stars, and so on and so forth).  You are impotent, but you still stand bloody and unbowed, confidently awaiting the Black Swan that is going to ruin you once and for all.  Comedy, on the other hand, leaves you wide open.  You aren't drawn anywhere.  Who knows what ridiculous prank the universe is going to play on you next?  The most you can do is try to keep your shirt on while Zeus throws the dice again.  Maybe this time you won't end up with egg on your face, but as long as it is there, you might as well laugh, right?  Maybe today you are stuck fighting some interminable, awful war on foreign shores, but tomorrow you could be bedding a goddess.  Better take that shower after all.  You might need it!  You are always waiting for the Black Swan that is going to save you (whether from some really bad guys or just a really bad movie script, because comedy has room for the small as well as the large).

Heroism works best by adapting us to the situations we face--allowing us to give each problem our best shot without feeling too bad about the results (which are never entirely in our control).  Comic heroism, I think, makes it easier for us to adapt than does the tragic (even as the tragic is intuitively easier to understand and even emulate: many a man who struggles to live as a hero has little problem dying as one).  Laughter really is the best medicine, the gift that lets us embrace and transcend our own smallness and meanness--the pettiness that comes with thinking that your individual thoughts are somehow intricately bound up with the meaning and purpose of the entire universe.  Of course they are!  Just like your bowel movements, and the bowel movements of other living things (including small and large cattle: we need bullshit to live, honestly!).

Life is funny.  It would be insufferably tragic, if it weren't also so ridiculous, so unexpected and absurd.  A series of mistakes and stop-gaps, compounding over time, a hopeless tangle of purposes and cross-purposes canceling each other out, and out of it all comes this ape pretending to explain everything with a bedtime story (wait, I mean a gajillion bedtime stories).  The earth is impossibly old!  No, wait, she is incredibly young.  Her wrinkles clearly prove ... that the Intelligent Designer went to fashion school?  Nay, that she was once a dragon, and we live on her corpse!  (Or was it a turtle?  In fact, it may be turtles all the way down!)  In ancient times, the first man was made of mud.  (Or was it blood?  Maybe we should kill a bunch of heretics to find out.  If they bleed red liquid, we'll know we're right!)  And then the Lord made woman.  (From mud, or from a rib?  More importantly, why on earth would he do such a thing?  Why make something that doesn't have a penis?  Well, it has boobs!  Point taken!  Clearly we must save it from doing anything that might shake those things too much when we're not around to gape at them.  Shut them up at home, for goodness' sake!)  And then they made more people.  (People!  How did they make people?  Are we old enough to have this discussion yet?  Probably not.  Let's say a stork gave them babies!)  And then the people were wicked.  (Wicked?  What means that?  Well, they fought, and ate, and farted, and had babies, and got sick, and died, and other stuff.  Wait, why is eating bad?  And babies--what's wrong with getting those from storks?  It makes sense that war be something bad, but what makes it happen?  Hell, kids, you ask too many questions!  Let's just say there was this evil dude named Satan who did it all.  Or was his name Ahriman?  Loki?  Was he a dude dude, with a thingy, or was he maybe something else, like a snake?  So many questions!  Maybe we should just make Satan a mad scientist and be done with it.  But how does that make him different from God?)  And then we had to punish the wicked so that others wouldn't be like them.  (Because punching you when you're sick means that I won't get sick, right?  No.  Stop taking everything out of context!  But is there really any other way to take it?  Snap!)  And so on, and so forth.  We are only ever telling the same story over and over, varying the particulars as some among us accidentally learn a few "new" things (forgetting that there is really nothing new or old for those who cannot tell the difference) and attempt to convey understanding of them with old words.

All religions are true.  All are false as well.  What matters is not so much which one you believe, as whether you live well.  Do you tell your lies sincerely, and live by your code well?  Could you die today and wake up happy, even if you were in hell?  If you can say yes to that, then I approve of you (not that you care or ought to, but you have my approval whether you want it or not).  Life is first about what we do, second about how we do it, and only last (and least) about the words that we or others use to tell stories about it.  It doesn't matter who the storyteller is (whether he is a man or a woman, a paleolithic shaman or a modern scientist): the story will always be incomplete--a pale reflection of things that are more real than it is, helpful in some ways but in others worse than useless.  Some of us worship the stories.  We worship them wildly, madly, destructively, with a passion that cankers all that is most noble and heroic in our souls.  Nietzsche and Taleb call us away from such fanaticism, away from the worship of stories--into the clear, cool light of day, where we must make our choice and meet our doom the hero's way (without knowing or caring how results turn out after we've given our best).  You can meet your doom however you please.  I don't know what it will be any more than I know my own, but I do know this: whenever mine finds me, I will be laughing.  Vale!          

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Confronting Human Violence

In light of recent events (specifically the rash of public shootings in the USA), I have been thinking about guns.  Here are some of my thoughts that seemed worth writing down (for future reference).  My thoughts arose in the context of conversation with several different people (whose words will be reproduced anonymously here in bold where necessary to make my ideas make sense).  If I weren't in such a hurry, I would try to save the best bits as their own essay, but time is short and I don't want to lose anything that might be useful for future reflection because I cannot think of a way to work it into a single essay.

Trying to lower armed violence by arming more people is the equivalent of a junkie who takes uppers to counter the downers.

I would qualify this statement by saying that the character of the person you arm matters a great deal. Arming me would not make anyone less safe. I would not be more violent. I would gladly register any arms I might have with the public (and the police), and receive the best training available to me. I would avoid confrontation at all cost.

Passing out guns on the subway (or a gun-show) would not be the same. As I see it, the problem with our current situation is a failure of culture (and responsibility). Guns are like cars: dangerous equipment that nobody should have unlimited access to. If you want to play the game, then you have to prove your worthiness. As someone who aspires to drive and carry weapons, I embrace that responsibility: if I use either tool improperly, I accept full liability (up to capital punishment and the seizure of all my property for the community). I am willing to give the community good faith. I think I deserve to be armed.
  By "armed" I don't mean that I want my own personal tank, or anti-aircraft guns. That used to go without saying, but these days you have to remind people of their limits.

I admire your responsibility, but the research shows that guns in the home increase the risk of child related accidents and women being killed in domestic violence.

Research also shows that death is inevitable, and that correlation is not causation.  (Don't keep loaded guns lying around. Lock stuff up, and for goodness' sake, learn to load your weapon when you need to use it: it isn't hard, and if you don't leave bullets lying around, your kid won't shoot anyone with them.Research probably also shows that inexperienced drivers cause more accidents. When my kids are old enough to learn how to drive, I will invoke this research to prevent their ever learning. Or maybe not.

Carrying a gun makes you 4 times more likely to be shot or killed by a gun. 

I currently reside in "gun-free" Chicago, Illinois, where as a good citizen I am unarmed (and plan to remain so for the foreseeable future). What do statistics say about my chances of making it home today without being shot, compared with (say) Provo, Utah (where I just spent the holidays, and ran into people carrying concealed weapons, incidentally)?

If my chief motive in life is to avoid being shot, then my best bet is to move away from civilization and keep a low profile. I am less likely to be shot in Provo than Chicago. In Nowhereville, Montana, I am even less likely to be shot. But even there, somebody with a gun might find me. There is no place on earth where my likelihood of being shot disappears entirely.

Society gets better because we begin to identify with those who are different than us, we leave patriarchy behind and equality takes root. Racism, misogyny and other "-isms" go by the wayside. As we begin to see our enemy as ourselves, increase empathy, understanding and tolerance.

As we do this as a society, violence as a whole decreases. If people's attitudes continue to remain rigid, that they must defend themselves, then we are not making progress toward egalitarianism and empathy and moving farther toward violence and an "us versus them" mentality, and this worries me.

Egalitarianism is not non-violent, historically. The most egalitarian societies we know of are hunter-gather cultures rife with murder. Social hierarchies (the opposite of egalitarianism) suppress this "low-level" violence, and channel it into "high-level" violence (the wars of conquest and defense that students of history are familiar with). There is no path away from social violence. 

I guess I don't understand the basic premise of you argument which seems to be: "Carrying a gun makes you less likely to be shot."  That doesn't follow for me. Can you walk we through the argument?  

Carrying a gun doesn't make you less likely to get shot. It gives you something to fight back with that might actually stop your attacker from doing more than wounding you. 

What about Steven Pinker, who says that violence is decreasing?  He has research behind his talks.

Of course Pinker has research behind his talks.  The problem is that his statistics lie, and because he is smart, the lie sounds really convincing (so convincing that he himself believes it). This is the great disease of our time: mistaking information for understanding.  Pinker is just another well-meaning, smart dude fooled by randomness.

Pinker is not wrong although Nassim Taleb might be. Google "fooled by belligerence." 

To me, the really interesting thing in the conversation between Pinker and Taleb is not the emotion or any specific numbers, but the way the numbers are interpreted. I leave the numbers to speak for themselves (to those who know how to read them): suffice it to say that for me, angry or not, Taleb is right (maybe arrogantly, belligerently right, but arrogance doesn't make you wrong, in my experience).

A firearm is solely an offensive weapon. It offers no defense whatsoever. It can only be used for preemptive aggression.

For example if you carry around a broadsword, I can carry a shield and stop your blows if you decide to attack me. But if I point a gun at me, your gun offers you no defense whatsoever. The only way you would be able to use a gun to protect yourself from assailants is to preemptively shoot them. Which is exactly what professional gunmen, like the military, do.

Yes, and if you drew a gun on me, I would like the option of pre-emptively shooting you, exactly the way police and military do.  If you drew a knife on me at close quarters, I would also like the option of pre-emptively stabbing you (or at least hitting you with the hardest thing available). I would not pick up a block of wood and to try hide behind it while calling the police (in hopes that they arrive in time to collect something more than my dead corpse).

But you can't be pre-emptive. That is what I mean as it being only an offensive weapon. Once I make the aggressive move, there is very little chance of putting your self into the position of being an aggressor. You have to point the gun first, which means it is not a defensive weapon.

If you want to lower your chances of getting shot to death in Chicago, you would better invest in Kevlar.

Kevlar is much more expensive than a weapon, much harder to carry, and much less effective. There is nothing anywhere that makes danger go away. We are none of us ever perfectly safe. The issue at hand is how we respond to danger. Some people want to hide behind blocks of wood (or armor plate) while others shoot them. Others would prefer to fire back. I maintain that there is a place for firing back, that people like me should be allowed to cultivate the option of firing back (within limits that already exist: police and military already carry guns, store them, and even use them responsibly quite a bit). 

I believe that what you are saying is that the merely the idea that many other people might be carrying a gun would be a deterrent to offensive action. I'm not sure if there are any statistics to back this supposition up though. 

I don't make arguments about statistics (which I inherently distrust, as the ability for even the most expert of experts to misconstrue them is so high). All I maintain is that in individual hostile encounters, my ability to respond to your firing a shot at me by returning fire acts as a powerful deterrent (particularly if you are a thug whose training consists of seeing a trigger and pulling it where mine involves drilling tactics with military and police). 

I am not sure that homicidal maniacs who plan on offing themselves after offing everyone else will be dissuaded by the thought that someone else, too, might have a gun. 

I don't care about what they think. I just want the ability to shoot them dead when they show up in my vicinity. If people really want to off themselves and others in a public venue, then there is little you can do to stop them beforehand. Simple IEDs are really easy to make (even illiterate Afghanis and Iraqis manage them very well). All I ask is the right to respond aggressively when I am personally assaulted. 

Psychiatrist James Gilligan makes this statement: "the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence."

This is profound to me, and I have never considered this before. As I am listening to you saying you are willing to commit violence for the same reason, i.e. that you feel JUSTIFIED in defense, even as others in this conversation are pointing out the error of thinking that guns provide a means of defense.

What you are saying is that you want pre-preemptive justice through the use of violence, or that you want to fight violence with violence.

How do we, as a society, justify violence with violence? Isn't this really the core of the argument? People want to fight violence with violence? They want to justify this?

Is there any other way to fight violence than with violence? Historically, again, states exist as monopolies on violence. The police and military we rely on to protect us are all about violence. They fight violence with violence. You can try the method of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis (to invoke Mormonism), but that usually means that you die (a martyr and a saint perhaps, but still dead, and some of us cannot stomach the notion of dying without a struggle). 

Yes, there is a better way to fight violence than with violence. When we understand that the core of violence is to seek justice, then we must educate people that it is maladaptive to seek justice through violence-- negotiation, the justice system, communication, these are all appropriate alternatives to violence. As we educate people, as we increase empathy, then people will seek justice through appropriate means and not through violence.

The person committing violence often has a warped idea of justice and will often take the violence out on someone other than the person they are angry with.  This not rational.  Education will help them.

I do not agree that the core of violence is to seek justice. People are violent animals. Why do puppies fight? Why do my two sons, whom we have not abused or raised to be commandos, instinctively fight (especially with other males)? People are violent. Justice is something we invent to explain this fact: it comes after violence, not before.

My kids are already violent (and cute and nice and sweet, too). They are not just (and have no coherent theory of justice: what little they have and are conscious of is less developed than their idea of, "Get the other guy! In the nuts!"). 

Also, where is the "warped idea of justice" in the dark alley where a woman is being raped and responds by shooting her attacker dead?  How would education make this outcome different?  How is it bad?  

People are becoming more and more civilized and finding non-violent ways to solve their problems. Although your kids (and mine too) have a natural tendency to fight, we teach them that it's not right, that they need to talk about how to solve their problems and not hit. I believe that a reduction in poverty and an increase in education will allow more parents access to these methods of problem solving and that from that we will see a reduction in violent crime.

When did I say that a woman being raped in an ally has a warped idea of justice?
It may be true that people are becoming more civilized and less violent overall (leaving aside that this is probably just a statistical illusion, as pointed out above), but it is patently obvious that individual members of the species are not equally responsible (or educable). In order to survive, I need to know how to speak the language not only of cultured elites, but also of evil thugs.
You keep returning to this notion that violence arises out of a misconstrual of justice, as though the solution to social violence were a better theory of justice (or more Platonic dialogue with a master like Socrates). I merely cited an instance of social violence as it typically occurs (a woman is assaulted in an alley somewhere, despite all her efforts to avoid confrontation, and responds by shooting her assailant). I think it is a good thing that she shoot the would-be rapist. I don't see her owning and using a gun as any kind of threat (or to be more accurate, any danger she creates is more than balanced by her ability to turn it back against those who must be stopped if we are to go on living well, individually and collectively). What are you telling her to do? Drop her gun and attempt to reason Socratically with her attacker, persuading him that he only wants to hurt her because he has been brainwashed by the patriarchy? In my eyes, even if that were true (let's assume there is a patriarchy and he was brainwashed), invoking it would not change anything. People who care about those kinds of arguments aren't rapists. You don't treat them the way you treat someone with depression (vel sim): you shoot them dead, preferably before they maim or kill you.
I disagree. As a woman who has been a victim of domestic abuse as well as a rape victim, I am intimately familiar with violence and its trauma. My home has also been broken into--not once, but twice.

Not only does my personal experience not make me want to own a gun for personal protection, but it has made me want to understand why people, who have never experienced what I have experience feel so threatened by this world.

I have experienced the horrors of this world and yet I do not wish to lash out at at. I do not wish to go on a rampage and kill the people who have harmed me. I do not wish to own a gun and kill.

I do wish to change the world for better and make this world a less violent place. I wish to be better and help others to be better.

I am perfectly willing to let you be who you want to be. Unlike some, I don't think that all people in positions of social authority should always be armed. If you don't want to carry a weapon, then you should never have to. You can be an Anti-Nephi-Lehi if you want, but I reserve the right to be different. I am going to play Ammon, and I think that option should be available to good guys (as it is and always will be to outlaws).

Don't force me to live your life, please. I would never force you to live mine.

But, you see, we have a world filled with guns.  That makes me feel unsafe.  People want to put guns in schools. I work in a school. I do not want guns in my work environment.

I do not want people carrying guns in the streets.  This does not make me feel safe. When we have these discussions, all of this must be discussed, not just your desire to have guns in your home.

Being alive means that you are unsafe. I am sorry if that makes things unpleasant, but it is true. You will never be perfectly safe, ever, no matter who does what. Even if you did manage to keep guns out of your environment, you would not be safe.

cannot build a society that excludes all things that make you (or me or others like us) feel safe. What feels safe is not always safe, for one thing, and for another life is inherently fragile (and unsafe!). Please don't force us to live in a fantasy land where nothing bad ever happens to good people. I have already spent too much time living in that web of sweet, well-meaning lies--and I am never going back. Ever.

I also work in a school. Every time I step into class, I am fully aware that some student could walk in and start blowing things up. I go in unarmed. I feel people's pain, but I also know that banning guns unilaterally (with no provision for people like me to qualify for exceptions) will do precisely nothing to make anybody safer.

Guns are not the only dangerous machines that kill people.  Consider cars.  They might even kill more people than guns (outside of wars, if I remember somebody's statistics right and those statistics weren't lying). The real problem here, as I see it, is fear, which you want to handle one way (your way). This is fine, until your way becomes the only way, and I am supposed to pretend to be you. I am not you. I refuse to react to fear the way you would. I do not expect you to be me. Please stop trying to make me be you. 

So it seems like we're looking at this problem from two different angles--the world as it currently is, and the world as is should be. My opposition to arming more people as a deterrent to violence is that I don't feel that it moves us closer to the world we want. It reinforces the idea that the only solution to violence is more violence. Do I want to take away guns from people who currently own them? No. People can make their own evaluations on whether a gun will make them feel more safe given their current situation. But I don't want to encourage the idea that more people owning guns makes the population as a whole more safe--that moves us away from the direction I believe society should go.  

I personally think that the deepest problems here are inside people's heads. People are afraid. We are afraid because the world is actually dangerous (regardless of what guys like Steven Pinker say: he sounds nice, so we want to believe him, but I just don't live in his world, which frankly reminds me of a certain religious daydream into which I was born and from which I have spent the past few years extricating myself). We are always going to be afraid, because the world is always going to be dangerous (or unpredictable, which amounts to the same thing). Confronted with the uncertain, with our raw fear of it, we all must react. We don't react the same. We never did. We never will. Society is about negotiating our different responses so that we are minimally harmful to one another. I think we can negotiate a situation in which the possession of guns is treated like the possession of other dangerous tools (like cars and mortgages: guns are not the only things that kill people).

Give people responsibility for their own actions. Make them liable, and guys like me will step up to the plate and succeed (the way many police and military already do: in fact, many of my friends who get my point of view and put it into practice in their own lives are police and military; talk to them, and they will not tell you to rely on them for protection from all the bad guys; they don't trust themselves as much as you trust them). Don't make us face fear in a way that turns us into helpless cowards. If you back us into a corner, then we will be that much more likely to do what cornered animals do.

It doesn't matter when you tell us that you are putting us in a straitjacket for our own good. We get that you act out of the best of intentions. We see your life, and we honor your choice to live in a way that demonstrates your integrity. Please give us the same option, the same respect, the same responsibility that you so nobly bear for yourself. Please let us be heroes, too. Please recognize that yours is not the only heroism, the only truth to which all others must bow (or what? are you going to come to my house and take away all my weapons? are you going to send the police to put me down as though I were mafia? am I mafia to you? I don't know, but I do get the feeling that many people like you have very little human empathy for people like me).
On your right to "shoot dead" whatever you perceive as a hostile threat: I support in principle such a right, but in fact there is a tremendous difficulty. Someone firing a shotgun in a movie theatre is an obvious threat where a gun response would be justified, but other threats are not always so obvious. You might mistake me in a dark alley, for example, as a hostile threat and so shoot me in the face--but what about my right not to be shot in the face by paranoid vigilante types? Or do you believe that the death of Trayvon Martin was justifiable homicide?  

If I venture into a dark alley where a woman is being raped and she mistakenly shoots me as an attacker, then I consider myself justly shot (and would not begrudge her the right to respond, even if she shoots me dead). 

Do you believe it is justified to use lethal force to stop a property crime?

I am not sure how I feel. On the one hand, I would not respond violently without assessing the situation. I think there is a real difference between a stick-up in the street, say, and waking up to find some guy breaking into your house. In the first situation, I would be inclined to hand over my wallet and walk away (especially if the robber got really close to me, and certainly if there were several of them, as there often are in these situations). In the second, on the other hand, I would be inclined to use deadly force (and feel perfectly justified: if you come crashing into my house while my family is sleeping, then you just signed your own death warrant; how am I supposed to know whether you are a starving bum desperate for a meal or some crazed serial killer out for our blood? I cannot know this, so I cannot be criminally liable for treating you as a direct threat on my life). 

Even with all the horrid things that have happened to me--the domestic abuse, the rape, the home invasions--I choose to live my life not in fear, but in hope. Hope for a better life; hope that humans can change; hope that we do have the capacity to change our environment, our beliefs and our situations. It is with that hope that I live. Not in fear but in peace. 

I applaud your choice to embrace hope. However, please know that when your hope means that I have to give up mine, it becomes very bitter to me. Think about how you would feel if I made you own a weapon, train with it regularly, and take it to school every day, along with all your colleagues (including the creepy janitor who might be a pedophile, or the principal who is a sadistic bastard that beats his wife and leers at you). How would you feel? That is how I feel when you tell me that there is no way I can ever carry a weapon in Chicago. What makes you feel safe (and hopeful) makes me feel unsafe (and hopeless). The heaven on earth that you imagine (in which we all move forward together in lockstep towards a society devoid of all violence) is hell for me (as I confront armed criminals in Chicago with my fists).

As long as your safety requires me to run unnecessary risks (from my perspective: I understand that yours is different, but I have to live with mine), there will never really be peace between us. Festering distrust, mutual recrimination and suspicion, perhaps (the best option) a respectful hostility (I see your sainthood and salute you as a foe worth having). But you do not persuade me, and I doubt you ever will. I have been led too many times into the lion's den by prophets of peace whose only real skill is in making others fight their wars.

Auferre, trucidare, rapere falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. And the response from me will always be to raise an arm, discharge it, and shout: "Sic semper tyrannis!" (I am aware that those words were desecrated by idiots before me, and that they will probably appear in the mouths of worse criminals yet, but from my tongue they are honest, as honest and heartfelt as any words I might ever say. If that offends you beyond all hope of repair, then you should wage war against me and kill me quickly, rather than ask me to suffer a slow death by living somebody else's life.) 

I am asking society to collectively be better, to do better.  

I am wondering who "society" is, and how they can ever hope to be better when they have no integrity (as a collective). People talk about "the American people" as though there were such a thing. There is not. I reject any implication that I must live my life in lockstep with some collective culture that has no regard for my existence, no respect for the sanctity of my self-determination, no place for my personal responsibility.

Who are you referring to as your society? Mass-murderers? Is that your society?

My society are my friends, my family, my neighbors. They also include the children in my school; some of them have troubled lives and troubled families and I consider it m
y responsibility to reach out to them and improve their lives, if only by listening to them and letting them know they are cared about.

Yes, my society has also included the man who tried to strangle me and the teen boys who broke into my home. I am helping the police in each case to help them get help; as I want them to become better so they do not make the same mistakes.

My society includes my wonderful children, whom I have sacrificed for to get a great education so they can make a difference in their communities/societies. They are activists and work to change the world for the better.

My society includes children with disabilities and their families and I work to improve their lives; children that the world discards. My society includes people here, that have left the mormon church and are in need of community and support.

I choose to see good and happiness and hope. You do not. It is all perspective. We live in the same community.

The city of Provo, where I was just in company with various armed individuals, is not a city of mass murderers (the tragedy of Mountain Meadows occurred in the past, in a different part of Utah). I was not taking part in serial killings over the holidays.

My society are my friends and family, including many who have guns. I love and care about these people, and they use their guns to do good in the world (the same way they use their cars, their mortgages, their computers, their books, their toasters).

My society includes children too. They aren't always the most intelligent, in my experience. They don't get justice (until they punch their brother and he bites them back: then you can see the dim hint of a dawning realization cross their little faces).

My society includes some disabled, too. You are right to note that they find ways to contribute that make them valuable to the rest of us. I wouldn't let them get in over their heads (with any of the dangerous machinery lying around our house or anyone else's).

I do choose to see good and happiness and hope. You do too. But my happiness is not your happiness. My hope is not your hope. My safety is not your safety. I never knew that you even existed until this morning, when it came it my notice that we share a virtual friend (whom I have only interacted with online, alas, though he is probably justly grateful at this point in our conversation). We do not live in the same community.

Serious question: when a celebrity, politician, or rich person hires an armed bodyguard for protection, is this an example of someone using violence to prevent violence?  Also, I notice that some people get all up in arms about how sacred life is when they want to protect unborn fetuses, but then suddenly start talking about things more important than life when the debate turns to gun control, or hawkish attitudes to war. So which is it? Is life sacred or not? 

If those silly "gun-free zones" really worked as advertised, then the White House would be one, and the Secret Service would be Japanese samurai with no training in firearms.

All I know is that if life is sacred then death must be too. You cannot worship life without worshipping death, and to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, nobody has lived (or ever will live) without dying. In my experience, the same is true of violence: as far as I know, nobody has ever lived without violence. Not all violence is equal, of course, but there is no way to eliminate it (short of killing everyone: see the quote from Tacitus that I provided above).

Please note too that I support a woman's right to abort. Unlike many who wear the badge "conservative" these days in the USA, I don't believe in letting outside agencies make that decision for a person. In my utopia, you get to decide which children you bear, and what tools they inherit (including guns).

It's true that nobody has lived without dying. It's also true that human technology and medicine has extended the time that we all can live. We see this as a good thing. This is how we can worship life and not death--we continue to push death away from us, welcoming life and working to prevent death as long as possible.

We can do the same with violence, cultivating a society in which violent solutions are ostracized as "uncivilized." It's already happening (when was the last time someone was challenged to "pistols at dawn?"). You will retain your rights to keep your guns, and to pass your guns to children and grandchildren, who will have an increasingly diminishing need for them, until gun collectors are seen as quaint as civil war reenactors, and the second amendment has as much validity in our lives as the third. This is the world that I'm working for.

I have no problem with people like you going for your dreams, and I admire your motivation. My only concern arises when you try to force me to do things your way or die (as you have been particularly careful not to do in this thread, in contrast with some: thank you). I have no problem with the idea that I might be (or become) obsolete. I know it and embrace it.

I agree with you that things work better since we moved away from settling conflicts by single-combat (in some arenas: I actually sometimes wish they would bring back the custom of letting people challenge politicians to duels; it would make some of them think more clearly before they tried to force us all to do things their way). I'm all about enabling people to pursue productive ways of pursuing conflict that don't involve unnecessary and/or inappropriate violence. I support the right to be violent in certain circumstances: it is OK to squash mosquitoes now and then, when they bite you, but there are always limits; it is not OK to bomb the neighborhood with DDT because you don't like mosquitoes. I think my position is as fair and reasonable as anyone can expect somebody like me to have.
I am open to screening and training standards being raised for the legal possession of firearms in the USA.  I think that social responsibility is important, and that gun-owners could use more of it.

(Also, as long as we are talking about medecine, remember that it is not an unqualified good, historically.  Iatrogenics.) 

[A] Well, sure, if people could have guns and self control we wouldn't be having this conversation. It's a matter of degree. I believe we could all agree that nobody should be allowed to own nuclear weapons--that we should strongly regulate them, in spite of the second amendment. The same argument can be used with regard to high capacity firearms: extended magazines, fully automatic rifles, and the like. Some people have no self-control, and will attempt to solve their problems with guns in ways that prove unacceptably catastrophic. No amount of counter escalation will fix that. We need sensible gun regulation, akin to the UK, Canada and Japan. Anything else is just wishful thinking.

[B] But this conversation suggests that restrictions don't solve those problems. Gun control doesn't work. 

I would say that gun control does work: it makes me (the person determined to keep the law) a sitting duck in a hunting preserve for criminals. Every society has predators and prey. Gun control works to make sure that people like me (polite, civilized people determined to play by the rules) are always prey.

I am supposed to watch TV. I am supposed to believe that nothing ever happens unless somebody paid somebody something for some product. "Safety" is supposed to be a product I purchase from politicians (if I am a good little boy), or from a gun store (if I am an inbred, redneck cretin). If the product doesn't work as advertised ("I bought safety from my local schoolboard and people died anyway!"), I am supposed to weep, wail, and gnash my teeth in protest on TV (again) until somebody "does something" (i.e. re-arranges the deck chairs on the Titanic so that we can all go back to business as usual). From beginning to end, the thing is a stage-managed farce, on TV, in which idiot journalists drag me from one peak of emotion to another willy-nilly, milking me for money the whole way, selling me a bunch of lies and even more dangerous truths whose real-life value is almost completely worthless.

Stand back for a minute and consider that people die of drone attacks all the time in the Middle East--people no less innocent and helpless than the school children who perished in Connecticut--and the media couldn't care less. We all couldn't care less. We all keep fighting the stupid war that is killing them. We all keep using cowards' technology to deliver more firepower to those innocents than Adam Lanza ever had. Bastard that he was, at least he walked into that school himself. He didn't send a robot to do his killing for him, and then try to claim that all the innocent deaths were excusable collateral damage. He killed himself because he knew he was a guilty son of a bitch, and he wanted to die.

The price for my refusal to face the reality that my life costs others' lives (as it does, every day) is that I become complicit in what somebody else does to defend me. I refuse to see the people my government kills (not always quickly or humanely) so that I can be "safe" (and I retain hopelessly naive views of what safety really is, in the real world, where I do not live). I rely on somebody else to decide how violence gets done. I delegate that responsibility (the responsibility to exert some will to decide who dies so that I might live). If I surrender myself completely to the lies on TV, I become unaware that it is mine. I make no heroic choice (to stand down and be martyred like Jesus in the New Testament or fight to the death like Hector in the Iliad). I become a passive bit of chattel, making money for those journalists (so that they can continue to spread their poisonous lies, so that people will continue to wring their hands over one death as they ignore twenty others, so that politicians can continue to get elected on platforms and promises that make no sense, so that I remain a victim instead of an agent all my life). Fuck that.

Regarding comparisons between the USA and other nation-states.  The USA is not a small island. The USA is not a small country. American culture is not homogenous (see my comments about "the American people" above). We are not Singapore, not Britain, not Japan, not Switzerland, not Australia (even, thought that might be more like us). It is hopelessly naive to assume that you can govern us (all 300 million or so) with a single policy that works well in another group that isn't us. The death rates for places that are not America are just more lying statistics (a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing meaningful, until they somehow mean that I am supposed to delegate all my integrity to somebody else, usually somebody who needs to get elected to public office or who relies on milking my emotions for profit; I mistrust both individuals). 

You might get somewhere telling the government of Chicago to think seriously about making their town more like Singapore (and/or less like Mogadishu). That kind of thinking at least shows some promise of making sense (and even maybe leading to some real insights, after some effort and experimentation). The kind of apples-to-oranges claptrap that journalists always trot out is just garbage, even when they try to make it sound smart by using math. 
Comparisons that presume the equality of variables not really equal strike me as fundamentally ridiculous, more likely to lead to unexpected bad results than expected good ones when we take what works great in one environment and try to implement it where it might not work well at all.