Monday Ponderings – Signaling

Our recording system is still on the fritz. So, I’ll have the sermon up later today. I need to re-record it, and I made enough notations in the text prior to service that I need my delivery copy which is in my study.

whobehind911I’ve come across it most through the blogging of Tyler Cowen, but I think most of the time he actually links to Robin Hanson. At least it is high enough to be in his word cloud. The it that I’m referring to is signaling. Grossly summing it up, signalling says that we choose our positions on “issues” or make choices in life not based on true or false or explicit logic but based on what the choice will say about us and our status. We signal to others who we are and what we think we are worth (status) by the positions we take. I’ve got three things to say about this thought. First, it is a viscous mind-worm. Once you allow yourself to start looking at what people say not on the face of it, but on what it says about their social standing, it starts to explain everything and it is hard to stop. Like that catchy song that keeps running through your head, you can’t get it out without effort. The second thought is simply that for some things – like sports teams and colleges – signalling probably has truth in it, although I think there is a chicken and egg effect. You pick a sports team or college signalling who you are because that is who you’ve been formed to be, instead of choosing to signal you aspirations. (Thanks mom & dad, just kidding.) I’ll give a controversial for instance. If you wished to signal that you are “one of the good people” defined as being nice and open-minded and full of sunshine, even if you had no stake in the game, you put the yellow equals sign on your facebook photo. You probably didn’t have strong feelings about homosexual marriage, you just wanted to signal that you were not a knuckle-dragger. He doesn’t go there, but Robin Hanson himself puts up an interesting graph asking the question in different nations, “Who was behind 9/11?”. He is talking about false flags, but a more interesting question to me is: what are the 23% of Germans who say the US was behind 9/11 trying to signal? Or look at the 43% of Egyptians who are sure that Israel was behind 9/11. Not a logical answer, just a pure signal of who they are by who they think would be possible of such an atrocity. The last thing I’d say about signaling, it is too clever by half. It is one of those seemingly powerful ideas that nevertheless is subtle that intrigues the way too intelligent for their own good.

Jesus actually addresses something like signaling in a couple of places. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus brings up how the gentiles lord it over each other. I’ve always read that as status games. The gentile world was all about signaling, procuring and cementing status. Jesus tells his follows don’t do that; seek to serve each other. Exactly the opposite of the status games of the gentiles which are about signaling dominance. Also, Jesus’ emphasis was on reality. Do the hard thing, don’t posture the easy thing. In Matthew 5:37 Jesus says something similar. Let your yes be yes and no be no. Don’t concentrate in your daily life on the sub-text or hidden meanings or signalling, but on the simple yes and no. When Jesus talks about being wise as serpent and innocent as doves (Matt 10:16), to me this is a big part of what he is talking about. You have been freed to not be part of that status race that the gentiles are in. Choose instead to be a person of substance not signaling. But, and its a big but, recognize that this world is not he Kingdom. You be innocent as doves, but also be wise as serpents realizing that such status games is what the world is about. And if you refuse to be a part in any significant way, a world of hurt is coming your way.

Why this popped up was three stories I ran across over the last few days that seem to have some significance.

First is this piece by Anthony Bradley in World on the new legalism. He’s talking about what I take as a pure signaling game. And it is one that has infested deeply the LCMS. On the one side are the missional and on the other side are the confessional. And both groups would take high umbrage at this, but in my impression this is more about each group signaling their commitment to Christ over the actual content of that commitment. Confessional points to the confessions, quotes Luther, and wants you to perceive them as closer to the truth, signaling “we are right”. Missional points to the great commission, looks at the largely pagan world, quotes modern authors full of passion, and wants you to perceive them as the ones who case, signaling “we care and place current needs over dusty old things”. And each group is vicious about the “sins and impieties” of the other. But this is rarely about real world things, but about signaling status within the church and trying to Lord it over the other. That is legalism.

This is a rah-rah article for the latest trend among hyper-articulate and hyper-aspirational women – freezing your eggs. Here is the opening paragraph.

Between the ages of 36 and 38, I spent nearly $50,000 to freeze 70 eggs in the hope that they would help me have a family in my mid-40s, when my natural fertility is gone. For this baby insurance, I obliterated my savings and used up the money my parents had set aside for a wedding. It was the best investment I ever made.

Now I’ve said before that having babies/todlers in your 40’s is not an easy game. But let’s be clear. This is not about the reality of family life but signaling status. The woman writing is signaling that she is successful enough to bend the laws of nature, to have enough income to pay a 20 year old to eventually raise her kids, and yet still woman and caring enough to desire them. “See how much I’ve spent attempting to ensure I can be a mom? I care. I’ll make a good one.” It is not about the messy facts of life, or that raising kids is often much different that the carefully planned career. It is about signaling status. I spent my reproductive years on something more valuable – a career. And when I’m secure enough there to Lord is over, when I have status that can’t be taken away, then I’ll have that one perfect child. And if you had your priorities straight, you’d follow me. And lets just say, that is nuts. Marry early, have your kids, then get the career. Right priorities and easier order. It is always easier to go with the design of the universe than to buck it.

The last article is a survey of contemporary philosophers on personal beliefs. You’d have to know some of the jargon to get it completely, but it is basically a run-down of gut beliefs about the large categories of philosophy. One particular point is interesting. You can get results like this with Platonism which roughly means that abstract things like love have a separate existence in an of themselves (an ideal) having a plurality of belief.

2. Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.

And things like this while a minority but a significant one think the mind is more than the sum of the brain matter.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

But 73% desperately want you to know that they don’t believe in any God.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

That is class signaling. I’m sure there are some platonic non-physical mind atheists in there. (I’d love to hear someone try and defend that as the rational position!) That atheism is less about the reality of the belief than about signaling I’m not one of those knuckle-dragging, ooga-booga, religionists.

So signaling is helpful in understanding how this world acts. Just don’t internalize it, especially among fellow Christians. Let your yes be yes. Don’t attempt to Lord is over one another.

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