Saturday, February 25, 2006

Progess - some Socratic questions

A blog can't really be Socratic since there is nobody to answer me. But, in the spirit of asking insightful questions about things that are important to us I offer this post. First, you'll want to bear in mind that progress is being defined here as an increase in our ability to understand and manipulate nature, to create goodas and services, and to incorporate widely held values in social policy and law.

Here are my questions:

1. Is is really true that scientific progress makes society better? One could argue that practical problem-solving without basic research continues to provide far more value to society than scientific research.

2. Is it really true that technological progress improves society? Once again, one could argue that everyday problem-solving is far more valuable than prestigious and sexy technological innovation like fission reactors, and genetically altered animals.

3. Is unrestrained progress in science and technology really desirable? If not, then how do we know what restraints there should be or in what direction progress ought to be guided? I'm making the big assumption that a way could be found to guide progress in science and technology. (Regardless of our collective decision, we had better discuss the criteria for what counts as a good decision.)

4. What sort of progress in science and technology will best support widely held human values like family, health, individual liberty, and material security? How do we know?

Looking for a thesis, theme, or term paper, or dissertation topic? Read those questions again!

Next Up: Nationalism

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Idea of Progress

What is progress and how do we know? Just so we have some place to start I'll offer a definition that, I think, most people can accept: Progress is an increase in a society's capacity to create goods and services, cope with the natural world, and act more effectively to support widely held human values. So, I think that covers progress in science, technology, economy, and morals.

The idea of progress is one of the most important ideas in the history of (modern) Western civilization. It is not an obvious fact of human life and it is not common sense that societies will progress in science, technology, or morals (especially the latter!). Economic growth has been slow for most of human history, but it does occur in most societies.

Obviously, many modern societies are reversing that historical pattern in economics, science, and technology. Moral progress is a really sticky issue, so I'll stick with progress in science and technology for this blog.

Tomorrow I'll make some comments on the nature of scientific progress and of technological progress too. There are some hard questions about the social impacts of scientific and technological progress. For instance: In what specific areas will scientific progress really serve society? How do we know?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Self Improvement and Society

I bet you' like to lose some wieght, change your eating habits, make a lot more money, or be much more successful with the opposite sex. How much of an imporvement can you really hope to make in these areas?

Last time I noted 11 factors that shape a person's life. Basically, my point was that many factors shape a person's success, or lack of it. Yet we tend to attribute our successes to our own efforts rather than to the combination of chance, biology, genetics, and social environment that objectively affect our lives.

So, if the idea that we can dramatically improve ourselves is a myth, why does the belief persist? Keep in mind that what I'm writing applies to all sorts of self-improvement efforts and not just to making more money.

Two sociological reasons for the persistence of this myth come to mind. First, our constant striving to improve ourselves spurs economic growth as we start businesses, invest, and get specialized training. The other reason has to be that striving to improve oneself in socially approved ways (firmer body, higher income, new values and attitudes) channels our energy in useful directions. This channeling of wenergy supports economic growth and keeps us from causing trouble.

Have you ever been to the self-help/psychology section of a large bookstore? Try running a search on self-improvement at! The persistence of the idea that we can dramatically improve our lives by reading the right books or doing the right diet generates millions in revenue each month for bookstores, publishers, and authors.

(I will deliberately ignore the question of how well these self-improvement methods really work. Is there any research on the results that people get from applying the ideas in books like Unlimited Power, Getting Things Done, Think and Grow Rich, or The Power of Focus? Really, I don't know. If you have any information, please pass it along!)

Jump back to my last post to review the eleven factors that shape our lives. How many do you think are really under your control? Your opinion could reasonably be different from mine, but here is my view:

  • Only 2, 4, 6, 7, and 11 are somewhat controllable. And the individual's control over decision making, intelligence, and physical health and mental health are probably not as great as we like to think.
  • The other personality traits that contribute to success - perserverence and self-control in high amounts - seem to be there or not there. Dramatically increasing your self-control is likely to prove extremely difficult. Your efforts could easily be undermined by chance events, like a death in the family, or other biological traits like a predisposition to alcoholism.
  • The government, economy, blind chance, socialization, and the cultural environment are not under our control at all. All we can really do about the cultural environment, government, or economy is to leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere.
  • We can attempt to manage the impacts of chance occurrences on our lives through making contingency plans, buying insurance, conducting thought experiments, and other methods. Our ability to use those methods effectively, and even our awareness of them, is likely determined by factors that are mostly beyond our control.
The "take-away" from these two posts is this: The scientific truth is that many factors shape our ability to get ahead in life or to otherwise make major changes in our lives. Your experience of being fully in control of your life is a useful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. The illusion is useful because it is psychologically helpful to us and promotes progress in society.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Myth of Self Improvement

One of our core beliefs, at least in the United States, is that people can substantially improve their lives through their own efforts. The fact of self improvement is considered self-evident. The drive to improve oneself has both spawned and been strengthened by self-help books, seminars, articles, and personal coaches. The self-improvement "myth", and you'll soon see why I call it a myth raises some troubling sociological and psychological questions.

Surely, factors beyond raw desire and perserverence determine how far you can go in life, or how "good" you can be. But I bet most people have never really paused to consider the many factors that shape a person's life. Here is a list:

1. Socialization - what you learn from friends, family, school, church, the mass media
2. Decision making - relative degrees of irrationality
3. Cultural environment - norms, beliefs
4. Intelligence - reasoning, memory, abstract thinking, planning, creativity
5. Economy - jobs, inflation, markets, credit
6. Peer groups - some are helpful, some are not!
7. Physical health - mental and physical
8. Personality traits (stress tolerance, depression, sociability, probably some others)
9. Government - competence, honesty, types of laws and policies
10. The natural environment - climate, soil, weather, water
11. Blind chance - stuff happens
12. Formal education - technical training, university courses of study, more

(Please let me know if you think I left anything out!)

The idea that people can and do get ahead on their own may come more from psyhcology than from sociological processes. Don't you like to feel that good things that happen are due to your own efforts: You got the hot girl to go to thr prom with you. You closed your first big real estate deal.

Whatever it is, we all like to feel that we did it. But maybe the girl was worried about having a prom date and decided that you would do. Maybe a dozen other people with similar talent and drive are not doing quite as well in real estate. Maybe the laws of probablity just happened to work in your favor this time.

Next time I'll say more about how the myth of self improvement works for society and how social factors shape our lives. If you were wondering how much the individual does do or could do, I'll also have some things to say on that subject. Come back Saturday afternoon!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Nature of Modern Societies

That's the next blog subject for Dr. Society - What ideas do we have about the nature of society? What are there social functions? How do we know if these ideas are good ideas? By that I mean they are logical, scientific, and supportive of widely-held human values.

Here are some of the ideas, or groups of ideas, I plan to write about:

1. We can improve our circumstances in life solely through our own efforts.
2. Progress in science and technology is good.
3. Economic growth is good.
4. Nationalism is good.
5. We live in a dangerous world.
6. We live in a denagerous society (especially relevant in the United States!).
7. Human sexuality is "bad"/dirty/sinful.
8. Retirement.
9. Direct democracy.
10. Reverence for nature/superior attitude toward nature - 2 opposing views.

I may add one or two more. Expect to see two or three posts, covering the idea, its social consequences, its personal consequences, and the mechanism that keeps it alive in society.

Remember that junk about widely-held human values? I'll explain myself in more detail. Health, family, personal liberty, education, and suffciency (more than poverty, less than substantial wealth) are some of those widely-held values. Of course, you philosophers and anthropologists can find some problems with that short list, but that's OK. I just felt the need to offer some point of reference when I return to the subject of values in future posts.

Next time: The idea of self-improvement, particularly as the idea applies to your economic circumstances.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Does God Play Favorites, Part II

The belief that God (or substitute any other supernatural being) does favor us over other groups has some valuable social functions. The idea supports groups especially when the groups are threatened by other groups. You should know by now that the belief is born and reinforced in groups, the same groups we may need to be part of.

That all leads to the subject of today's post: What are the social and personal consequences of belief that God plays favorites?

Anyone familiar with world history has already figured out the most important social consequence: War is sometimes the result of the belief that we are favored by God. "God wants us to have their land you know."

Internal social conflict may be almost as serious for cultures and for you and me too! How so?
Pursuit of some ill-conceived idea or policy can come from belief that God wants us to lead the fight against, for example, gay marriage. This can create a strong feeling in the "crusaders" that they are involved in a God-favored struggle. The feeling itself is not a problem, but it can lead to rigid faith in some idea that is at odds with facts, logic, or values.

The recent debate over intelligent design illustrates my point. Religious fundamentalists are trying to make us teach, learn, and respect their religious beliefs. Dressing these beliefs in lab coat does not make them scientific any more than I can make my cat a reindeer by putting plastic antlers on his head! Yet, the seemingly obvious waste of time and energy goes on.

Why? Because, I think, evangelical Christians see their worldview coming under increasing assault from science and modern, materialistic values. But the evangelicals, they assume, are closer in their views to what God intended America to be like. Thus they are the obvious to group to lead a revival in the United States.

So, for society we get lots of time, eenrgy, and money wasted on crusades that are not necessarily as ethical, logical, or scientifically sound as we think. The other side also has to waste resources fighting bad ideas, like intelligent design.

Societies can also be dragged down by bad laws and bad policies predicated on the idea that God is smiling on the nation (or culture, which is roughly the same as a society though there are many exceptions).

Islamic law offers one example of what I mean. A strict, "correct" interpretation" of Islamic law can produce a society that fosters systemactic abuse, especially of women, cruelty to certain deviant groups (homosexuals come to mind), and economic decline. People who constantly study the Quran and try not to violate religious laws are not trying to start businesses, invent useful things, or create new works of art. If credit does not exist it is even harder to start a business.

What about individuals who latch onto the God plays favorites idea? Everything I've already written applies. You get hooked into fighting a war. You spend time, energy, money, and credibility on promoting ideas that come from the dubious belief in being part of a favored group.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Does God Play Favorites?

I'm not sure if most Christians, Muslims, and Jews have ever seriously considered this question and the ramifications of the fundamentalist answer. The Islamic clerics, to cite a timely example, are whipping their followers into a frenzy over those stupid Danuish cartoons, still! This is one of those ramifications that I mentioned. But enough about Islamic fundamentalism. Do any of these ideas seem familiar:

1. God is on our side in the war on terror (Islamists certainly feel the same way about their conflict with the Christian world.)
2. God favors evangelical Christians.
3. God wants us to have (name a country or region).
4. The Jews are God's chosen people.

I have no idea if any of these statements reflect Ultimate Truth and it really doesn't matter does it? Perceptions are effectively the same as reality.

Consider some reasons for the staying power of this particular idea, of God favoring one group or another. Believing in your "special" status can make a group stronger in the face of adversity. Relationships are vital to our survival and we may thus be willing to accept ideas that don't make sense. A culture filled with beliefs and ideas regarding the supernatural creates a perfect setting for "elitist" religious views to take root.

Next time I want to explore the personal and social consequences of this idea. Awesome!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Muslims Riot Over Cartoons

You've probably seen the news coverage of riots in Lebanon and elsewhere that seem to have been sparked by some offensive cartoons run in European newspapers. I say "seem to be" because of the possibility that some imams and mullahs were involved in whipping up the crowds. Anway, what does this news have to do with sociology?

Well, in part, I already answered that question. People respond to events partly because of the events, and partly because of leaders who inflame passions, provide a vision, give orders, or whatever that particular leader can do to influence people.

But there is another point to be made here. This one is at once obvious and subtle. Here it is:

People need to consider the social consequences of their actions. Could the newspaper publishers have anticipated this result? If so, are they partly responsible for it? Are the imams and mullahs who, one speculates, are encouraging or condoning the violence, responsible? Are the rioters themselves fully rational and independent human beings who can make their own decisions and face the consequences?

Please! I think the 19th century concept of rationality has been blown out of the water by evolutionary biologist, cognitive psychologists, sociologists, and social pyschologists. People are mostly responding to their environments when they act out.

Of course this logic puts the editors in the position of not being fully responsible for their actions either. What's an eggheaded social thinker to do with this problem? One would wish that people would anticipate consequences like these deadly riots and make an ehtical decision to not publish something that's likely to incite violence. Or is that to soft-minded? Ought people to act on their values (e.g., freedom of expression) without too much concern for the social impact?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Nature of God

Does God love everyone equally? Does God intend to punish Christians for meddling in the affairs of Muslims? What is the evidence that God is benevolent or vengeful, in general, or in some specific circumstance? While these are obviously theological questions, sociology can offer some insights into how a society can be shaped by the answers.

Sociology can also help us understand why people believe what they do about the nature of God. The social environment is the origin of most of our ideas about the nature of God. How does that work? We get ideas and information from church, peer groups (including church youth groups), books, magaziens, and television shows. The ideas and information paint a picture of what God is supposed to be like. Messages about fire and brimstone or about unconventional love become part of your mindset.

And, psychologists will telly you that we tend to favor evidence that supports our current viewpoints. Evidence that confirms our beliefs about impending divine punishment tends to be accepted without question. Ideas related to God's love and compassion tend to be ignored or rejected or minimized - God really only cares about fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or ultraorthodox Jews.

How does one view or another come to dominate a society like ours? The environment (natural and social) in which a society exists probably has some effect on the prevailing beliefs about God. In a society surrounded by enemies people may lean toward a view of a vengeful God who will help us overcome and destroy our enemies. If nature seems to be working against us, we may believe in an angry and vengeful God who serves up swift punishment for our sins.

Our ideas about the nature of God do not simply appear from nowhere and develop through some rational process. Ideas about the nature of God are added to and molded by whatever beliefs and attitudes already dominate a society. Maybe this is a partial explanation for Muslim terrorism. Their culutures share a long history of dealing with a hostile environment, both natural and social. A God who can and will destroy "infidels" and the unjust reflects the hard realities of their cultural history.
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