June 28, 2009

My Fact Finding Mission to Buenos Aires

Recently, I suggested that Governor Mark Sanford should be our next President. To say the least, this is not the majority view in the United States. Maureen Dowd in her column in the New York Times today, for example, wrote a whole number accusing Sanford of a Mark/Marco duality ("he was in love with her, and in love with the image of himself in her eyes," etc.) consistent with her usual pop psychological approach. I use Freudian references in my own amateur psychology; if you're going to use uninformed generalizations, be sure to borrow from the best - the classics.

The South Carolina Democrats are now calling, of course, for an "investigation" into the state money spent on Sanford's trysts. This was all too predictable. The fun part of these scandals always gets ground to dust under the relentless assault of the scolds and bluenoses. We move from tan lines and magnificent parts to special prosecutors and audits. I still maintain that Americans do not know how to really mount, so to speak, a sex scandal, and I return to my own gold standard on the subject, Silvio Berlusconi, the 72 year old Prime Minister of Italy. Prosecutors there are interviewing 30 young women in connection with Silvio's habit of throwing parties where the guest list includes a lot of prostitutes, although Berlusconi has grandly dismissed the idea he's ever paid for it.

Does anyone ever ask why someone's sex life has anything to do with serving in office? In Eliot Spitzer's case, it was at least obvious that the Bush Administration's Justice Department tapped Spitzer's phone at the behest of the big investment banks on Wall Street which Spitzer had prosecuted in connection with their illegal laddering and insider trading frauds, arising from their IPO and mutual fund scams. Spitzer made them pay fines which were tiny in comparison to the bonanzas they'd stolen in violation of the securities laws, but still...it was the principle of the thing. It was as if Spitzer had taken the regulatory laws seriously or something. So he had to be run out of office by a compliant Bush Administration and media industry. Thus, the public lost one of its last remaining firewalls against systematic cheating, but gained a minor scandal for a couple of weeks. The tableau with the distraught wife, the giggles about knee socks, pictures of the whore. Tee-hee. We're such a mature people.

As for Wide Stance Larry Craig, Diaper-Clad David Vitter, and the rest of the gang, the usual explanation for their persecution is that they persecuted Bill Clinton when he was impeached. This explanation now extends to Mark Sanford, since he was a congressman at the time of the impeachment. This is one of those explanations that explains nothing. Yes, they're hypocritical about sex, but what, again, does that have to do with their fitness for office? It's as if the press, in digging up quotes from more than a decade ago, says "See? Tah-dah!" And we're supposed to instantly get that these guys have got to go.

See tah-dah what? What two ideas have been connected in the mind? I was reading a book by Pascal Boyer called Religion Explained not long ago, and he was discussing some of the recent thinking in evolutionary psychology, and the inference systems which we use to acquire knowledge and build on our existing database. For an example of such an inference, if I say that an ooglarp is an animal, you know a little - it's not a mineral or a plant. But in evolutionary terms, you're not much farther along than when we started. Should I be afraid of it? Can I eat it? That kind of essential hunter-gatherer knowledge. If I say that the ooglarp is the main predator of the zebra, you suddenly know an awful lot. It's probably a feline or canine creature, it's carniverous, it's probably fast and powerful, it has four legs and sharp teeth, and it lives in Africa. If it's feline, you would probably encounter one or two hunting together; if canine, it probably hunts in packs.

How did you know all that? With one clue, you inferred all the rest. The evolutionary psychologists think this is how our brains work. It's the most efficient way to learn; you don't start from scratch every time you learn some new piece of data. You extrapolate from what you already know. Thus, when ancient man looked around him, he naturally inferred, from the existence of creation, that someone created it. This was natural because he knew, from his own rudimentary tool-making and use, that you can build things. He naturally assumed, because of the way his brain worked, that the world was made by someone, and he inferred that it was someone of great power (the ancient cave-dweller couldn't build something like this). Thus, an omnipotent, anthropomorphic God was created by man to explain the world, using his natural, adaptive inferential technique.

Since humans were also very social animals (they evolved in that direction since cooperation was essential to survival, given their relative weakness in the animal world), they transmitted their belief systems in myths. A key requirement of such transmission is reproducibility; not just any story will work. The essential details have to hang together so they can be passed as a complete myth, without too many weird, extraneous features. Thus, an anthropomorphic God who is omnipotent, possessed of human emotions and exists only on Wednesdays just won't work. That last detail messes up the transmission. Similarly, the Virgin Mary is in every way a normal human except she gives birth immaculately. That's easy to remember and gives the story the mythic character it needs to go along with omnipotence, etc. Normal woman, Mother of God. Perfect. By the same token, the New Age approach of reducing God to a sort of inchoate force just doesn't catch on - where are the humanoid details, the story line that makes a myth a myth? So New Agers are actually the stealth atheists of the religious world, and I pass this on to my Fundamentalist friends who might be tempted otherwise to lend a New Age spiritualist their car keys.

It follows then, and ironically enough, that evolutionary psychology strongly suggests that belief in God is the natural tendency of humans, which is why religion and belief in the supernatural are found everywhere in human civilization, and always have been. By contrast, scientific thinking is highly unnatural and foreign to our innate brain processes. It takes a great deal of mental discipline to inculcate a truly scientific approach to reality. It gives the advantage of allowing tremendous predictive ability and control over outcomes, but it is not the normal, default way of thinking. If a plane crashes today and you're scheduled to fly tomorrow (on a different airline, on a different route, in different weather), your first instinct is probably not to reflect on the fact that the probabilities have not really changed at all. You infer, on the basis of atavistic tendencies, that you're in greater danger today than you would have been two days ago.

A scientific approach to the question of God would suggest that any anthropomorphic God could not have pulled this off. If God's brain is given over to emotional attributes like anger, jealousy, wrath, love, etc., it's unlikely that this human-like brain (supposedly we're made in his "image") could also undertake the enormous complexities, and the computational speed, required to make the universe. And if God could do all that, it seems unlikely that such a being would have even the faintest sort of commonality with man. As noted, the Cosmic Force version of God, endowed with the power to do all these things, doesn't sell down at the local cathedral because He's just too foreign to human experience.

So it seems likely, particularly given the conditioning of our specific culture, that a politician who errs sexually is subject to a set of inferences by the general public. These inferences include the presumption that a philandering man (and men in particular) are not trustworthy and fail in their public "father" role as a leader of humans. Is this scientifically reasonable? I don't see how it could be. Traits such as intelligence, creativity, organization and force of personality (which might make a leader more vulnerable to straying, after all) surely count for more than marital fidelity, since the governor or president or whoever is not married to the people he governs. The only question is whether he's effective at his job. Eliot Spitzer was very effective; that he had a thing for call girls is absolutely, completely beside the point.

As I've said, Europe seems, in general, to do much better with sex scandals and politicians than we do. I think this may reflect a higher-level mental functioning than is found in the United States. Not that the Europeans are innately more intelligent, but that their inference systems operate at a higher level of integration with scientific, rigorous thinking. Americans are primitive in the inferences they draw, conjoining factors which have no reality-based connection. America, of course, is far more religious than the secular Europeans, and the ready acceptance in the U.S. of all kinds of myths and literalist religion is probably indicative of lower, less evolved mental functioning.

But as an example of my own faulty inferential system: I assumed that Buenos Aires was farther south than it really is. It's in the north of Argentina across the water from Montevideo. Because it was located in South America, and I knew Argentina was the southernmost country, I inferred in a faulty manner that its capital would be in the extreme south. Yet scientifically this makes little sense. Why put your capital in the coldest location in the country? This becomes clear once you reflect on the role of latitude, which applies as logically in the Southern Hemisphere as in the Northern. What else have I assumed? Have I jumped to the faulty inference that because Sanford's mistress appears to be a tamale caliente, that all women in BA are such? And if her boyfriend down there leaked Mark's emails to the press, should I infer that all their boyfriends are treacherous and hot-blooded, and that one's hotel room door must be kept securely locked?

An old friend of mine, who has seen the whole world in the course of his work, writes that I should go to Buenos Aires myself, forgetting about the prudish sermons from the likes of Keith Olbermann and Maureen Dowd, indeed, forgetting about the blog - maybe, tal vez, forgetting about everything. And returning a new man. Does the cause of science demand any less?

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