Friday, May 02, 2008

E2.0: Jeff Hawkins: Entrepreneurial Atheism

This is the 35th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The Beyond Belief conference came to a close with two short presentations from people who seemed to be there just to observe the conference. One of those observers was Jeff Hawkins is the founder of two computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and the designer of many computing products including the PalmPilot and Treo Smartphone.

Hawkins was given a short (5-minute) opportunity to make a point about entrepreneurship.

Here’s the relevance. We have had two days of people talking about Enlightenment 2.0, and a lot of intelligent speakers presented a lot of intelligent ideas. Those ideas, according to Hawkins, are worthless without entrepreneurship.

He reported how, as a successful business person, people often come up to him with good ideas. They hand their ideas to him and he agrees that this is a good idea. He then looks at the presenter. The problem, he suggests, is not with the idea. It’s with the presenter. “You are not the type of person who can make change happen.”

Talk about brutal honesty.

We tend to think that, “If I have a good idea, the idea will sell itself. All I have to do is build it, and people will come flocking. All I have to do is sign up to create a blog, start presenting my ideas, and soon millions of people will come flocking over to listen to what I have to say, and carrying those ideas out into the world to make change.”

It won’t happen that way.

I have been struggling to come to terms with my own shortcomings in this area for a long time. I have my ideas, but I am not the type of person who can make change happen. I am far too shy and far too docile – too introverted – to do actually bring about change. I can imagine what it would be like to be the type of person who can make change happen. But, can I actually do those things?

Look at this blog and tell me if this looks like the work of an entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur is a special type of skill. It is a talent that needs to be cultivated and grown. It requires that a person take an honest look at himself or herself and ask, “How am I going to be the type of person who can make change happen?” It requires more than just a to-do list. It requires adopting the personality of a person who can effect change – a person who does the types of things that make change happen with the same skill that one rides a bike.

Try riding a bike by following a to-do list of when to pedal and when to turn the wheel? You’ll never get anywhere.

All of this makes perfectly good sense, as far as I can tell. Yet, when I think about applying it to a specific instance, I see that Hawkins misjudged some crucial elements of the culture that he was talking to.

Hawkins seems particularly interested in the question of how to sell atheism. He said that it is not a good idea to put a huge target on one’s chest and announce that one is here to bring down the biggest competitor on the block. That competitor will summon the resources at his disposal and squash you the instant it sees you as a threat. With its vast resources, there is nothing you can do to stop it. He suggested that directly challenging religion was a poor idea.

In this blog I am not at all concerned with promoting atheism. I do not think the product is particularly valuable. It is true, perhaps, but a lot of true claims are not particularly valuable. Converting a person to atheism does not automatically make him a better person. This is because atheism does not come with a set of moral guidelines.

However, I am interested in presenting a defense of desire utilitarianism. I defend it because I think it is the best theory of value available.

But here is where the problem was. I am not seeking to sell desire utilitarianism the way that Hawkins might sell a palm pilot or a Treo Smartphone. Desire utilitarianism is a theory of value. Its purpose is to explain and predict components of the phenomena of evaluation. It is a theory in the same way that evolution is a theory of the diversity of life. Evolution explains the changes that we have seen appearing in living organisms on the Earth over time.

The type of phenomena that desire utilitarianism explains includes why we have three different moral categories for action (prohibited, permitted, and obligatory), why negligence is a moral crime, why the actions of a bad Samaritan are not wrong, why particular claims about causation and intention are taken as legitimate ways of deflecting blame (are considered valid excuses), why moral statements appear to be propositions (because they are propositions), and why praise and condemnation have the roles they have in morality.

No other theory does a better job of accounting for these elements.

In this culture – in the culture where theories are presented and defended or defeated based on their ability to explain and predict real-world events, it is perfectly legitimate to walk up to somebody and say, “You are wrong.” I get it all the time. The task is not to try to gather customers to desire utilitarianism the way that one would sign up subscribers to a phone service. The task is to show that the theory actually does do a better job of dealing with real-world observations than any other theory.

The Discovery Institute, for example, treats theories like products to be bought or sold on the market place. They are ‘selling’ a product called ‘Intelligent Design” and they are, in fact, using all of the tools that are used to market a kitchen appliance. They have no interest in truth or the ability to explain and predict real-world events. All they care about is signing up subscribers.

What disappointed Hawkins is that Beyond Belief 2 did not discuss a marketing strategy. There were some remarks pointing in that direction. However, for the most part, the speakers presented a theory and then backed it up with evidence for believing that the theory does a better job of explaining and predicting real-world events than rival theories. In the academic world, you do sell your product by walking up to your neighbor and saying, “You’re wrong and here is the evidence to prove it.”

Furthermore, evidence claims are respected within that community.

We expect evidence claims to be respected everywhere. At the same time, organizations like the Discovery Institute are treating ideas like products to be sold on the marketplace. They are not ‘defended’ in the sense of providing evidence why they are true or false. They are ‘sold’ by linking the product to positive values and by linking competitive products to negative values.

We saw this principle applied to the movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. This movie attempted to link their product, intelligent design, to positive values – God and country. It attempted to link the competing product to negative values – Hitler, Stalin, the Holocaust, and similar evils. It did not even attempt to carefully define what the two products were, and offered no defense of Intelligent Design or refutation of evolution in terms of evidence. It focused exclusively on marketing intelligent design, not proving it.

So, we have two cultures which treat propositions in two entirely different ways. One culture treats propositions like products which are marketed and sold like toothpaste and hairspray. With marketing a proposition, you measure the things that can be said in its defense by its persuasive power – by whether the claim increases sales. The other culture treats propositions as claims about the world. When proving propositions, you measure the things that can be defense by whether it actually supports the truth of a proposition – by whether it increases the chance that the proposition is true.

The problem is that, if the first group is constantly evaluating ways to improve sales, and adopting claims based on that test, it is only reasonable to expect that they will be constantly increasing sales over time. The second group – the one that evaluates ideas in terms of truth – can expect to constantly struggle against the steadily improving marketing skills of their competitor.

Hawkins made one claim against the different ideas that think there is a lot of reason to question. Speaking about the fact that people once widely believed that the world was flat, they now believe it to be round, and the reason for the change is because there was money to be made sailing around the earth. He was wrong on a number of accounts. If you could find a way to make money off of evolution, he said, then it too would come to be universally accepted just as the round earth is now accepted.

Hawkins is wrong on two accounts. The first is that the earth was known to be round since the days of the ancient Greeks. The debate that Columbus had with the scholars of his day was not over the shape of the earth, but with its size. Scholars at the time said that the Earth had a diameter of about 24,000 miles – Columbus said it was about 14,000 miles (and that the East Indies were just over the western horizon). Columbus was an idiot – who managed to get lucky in stumbling into the Americas where he thought China should be.

More importantly, Hawkins was wrong to think that you can’t make money off of evolutionary theory. Evolution is the foundation for all of biology, which in turn is the foundation for all of medicine, agriculture, and environmental studies.

At the same time, the real dispute that the Church had with science in the 1600s was whether the Earth or the Sun was the center of the solar system. The Sun-centered solar system has come to be widely adopted. Yet, I cannot think of many ways in which the difference between the two could be explained in terms of profitability.

Hawkins made two true and important claims.

First, the idea that truth will always conquer myth and fiction is, itself, a myth. Truth requires that people actually take the effort to defend it.

Second, it takes a particular set of personality traits to affect change. It takes a willingness to act and a talent in getting people to pick up the cause and join in the action.

A well marketed fiction can well win the day – as it does in most parts of the world, and that is something for us to be worried about. That is something that should be teaching us to do a little bit more than sit back, enjoy our casual lives, and expect truth to win out on its own without any effort on our part.


Anonymous said...

Like in the way that you are not concerned with promoting atheism but rather desire utilitarianism, perhaps what we should be concerned with "marketing" are frameworks or methods rather then particular theories or content thereof. Maybe if we "sell" the idea that evidence claims have merit or that the scientific method is the way to go, maybe then truth will take a little more care of itself.

Anonymous said...

The worship of the entrepreneur seems to be our new modern religion. However, much of the claims in this religion seem to me to be post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies. Success is achieved by successful people? Or maybe successful people are the ones who achieved success.

Vinny said...

I've met Jeff a few times over the years and I think he's on to something. The messaging I see coming from the athiest community is either "yeah for our side," purposely adversarial or too complicated or science-y to be accessible to someone who's believed in and finds it easy to believe in a "magic man." (See, I was just condescending).

tep - I think you're misreading Jeff's point. I've built a career being an idea guy and then other people who aren't half as creative as me (see, I was just arrogant) make lots of money on it. I'm just not wired the same way they are. Entrepreneurs sell ideas, take risks and keep going back at it until the answer stops being NO.

I think our movement needs a few entrepreneurs who are focused on winning rather than being right. I think guys like PZ are brilliant and shine a bright light on a big problem, but he'll never bring the average American in to that light.