Thursday, October 27, 2005

differentiating part 2, a work in progress

Whether describing the approach of a judge who feels originalism or textualism* is the only way to construe the constitution, an Iranian Ayatollah who wants a political party like its 1399 or an American Ayatollah who thinks taking the bible literally will save us, [those of us elected by god or otherwise deserving of salvation] may not get too far by means of logic. This is an attempt to discern the mechanism of faith. This is an effort to find out why some of us would rather shore up our own authority by claiming to possess a code of perfection than to do the uncertain but profitable tasks that begin when you admit nothing from the hand of man is more than a work in progress.

How they can presume to know the minds of the writers hundreds or thousands of years after the writing has never been demonstrated to my satisfaction.

The claim that nothing material to the interpretations has changed for world views frozen on a page centuries ago defies common sense for a liberal and defines it for a conservative.

* One very authoritative book on the errors of thinking one could know just what the drafters of the constitution had in mind is Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution, written by Justice Breyer. [thanks, Mumon]

Friday, October 21, 2005

Getting to the bottom of my Idealism

In the CHICAGO-KENT LAW REVIEW is a long and scholarly article on the way emotion drowns out reason in the process by which nations choose to go to war. Academic writing appropriate to the publication in which it appears and daunting length promise an arduous read but its worth a look. A quote on the title page sounds like Einstein's prescient assessment of the Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz play book:

Man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, it emerges only in unusual circumstances; but it is a comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis.

Albert Einstein in undated letter to Sigmund Freud

The work is a write-up of a study by professors from CMU and University of Pittsburgh Law School. A bit of a long dry read but despite the fact the handful of readers of this blog have far more juicy news to digest these days, I make no apology for seeking your attention. My demanding day job and family, all far from the seat of power, and my willful dissociation from any politician guarantee there will be no inside scoops of what fear, power lust and greed have produced in Washington or Iraq, not in my little blog. But while you are all buying tickets and setting up bleachers to watch the shit hit the fan, give a thought to where shit comes from. Not all shit just "happens". On the eve of the pathetically stupid invasion of Iraq, many progressives marched in protest. It was a fine gesture and at that moment, the best you could do. But it was too late. The process, moving pretty much according to the scheme of things laid out in this paper, had already skidded past the point where one could mount effective rational opposition. The point, if there were only one point, to all my blogging is to ask that we discern the roots of mass stupidity in our own psyche the better to be able to head off that stupidity when it first begins to gather momentum.

The authors begin:

Intense emotions can undermine a person's capacity for rational decision-making, even when the individual is aware of the need to make careful decisions. With regard to public policy, when people are angry, afraid or in other elevated emotional states, they tend to favor symbolic, viscerally satisfying solutions to problems over more substantive, complex, but ultimately more effective policies. Over the past 40 years, this has led the United States into two costly and controversial wars, in Vietnam and Iraq, when members of Congress gave the president broad powers in response to a perceived crisis that did not leave sufficient time for deliberation.

I would hope that progressives, even those who initially accepted the fabrications about the cause for the war, were more practical and rational than the majority of our stampeding congressmen, thinking "This is half-baked and it just isn't going to work." The truly practical arguments will often have the same effect and greater force than the moral arguments. The truly practical arguments come more transparently from the same place: a concern for the ultimate consequences to all involved. We never know everything and we rarely know enough but in such circumstances it is our rationality, our capacity to consider and balance long term consequences, that might save us so much grief. It is that capacity, the authors argue, that turns to putty for the politicians to shape. One thing I hope distinguishes the progressives from the warmongers is progressives will see there is more safety FOR ALL in admitting we are afraid than in exclaiming through gritted teeth that we are tough and dangerous. We all see clearly now there was not anything to be afraid of in Iraq but that a cheap manipulation of news sufficed to provoke the fear that drove us in there anyway.

The author's finally call for mild structural change to government and I agree with them because human nature and our culture are NOT changing:

Yet political leaders can exploit emotions for their own ends, so as a society, we must recognize the havoc that emotions can play on public policy, and government should adopt legal safeguards that slow the pace of decision-making so that lawmakers have time to weigh the consequences of their choices.
Human psychology hasn't changed much, but politicians and marketers have become ever more sophisticated when it comes to manipulating people by manipulating their emotions. One of the functions of law should be to keep deliberative control in the picture, especially at times of high emotion when it is needed the most.

I don't want to make news. I don't want to break news. I want people to be wise enough that there will be no news.

[article discovered via eurekalert]

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mind body? No! I don't mind at all!

I imagine one thing that I and Rush Limbaugh could agree about is that there is a grain of truth in the old joke/definintion: "Stress: that unhealthy side effect you suffer when you restrain your urge to choke the living daylights out of the contrary and annoying idiots you have to deal with".

The scientific fire, if any there be, under all the smoke I referred to yesterday is a loosely bounded hype-plagued topic often labeled "mind-body connections".

As a matter for academics to investigate, it has at least the legitimacy implied by the existence of projects and study centers at many universities such as this at U Wisconsin. More respectable studies than I can count have generally concluded that a "positive attitude" correlates strongly with a longer life and a healthier old age. I am NOT a researcher in this field, but who among us would not have an amateur interest in obtaining such effects in our own lives?

Any attempt to find a medically or socially beneficial theory of how the mind operates will have to account for these "correlations". Some authors in this field found their work on such observations as "There is clear evidence that people who have a positive outlook and are confident of overcoming stressful barriers have higher blood levels of the T cells and natural killer cells that correlate with robust immune function." I expect the researchers willing to consider the widest set of data will be the first ones to find which among the many correlations are the causes and which the effects.

And there is, I admit, a bewildering amount of evidence to sort out. For instance, how much do your genes matter? Do happy people live longer because DRD4 regulates both dopamine and bloodpressure?: [Reference: American Journal of Hypertension, (18) 9, September 2005, pp. 1206-1210] or do people with a better coping mechanism for stress save themselves?

So, what attitude would bail us out of the "stress" I first alluded to? The attempt to put your own huge and obvious rationality and rectitude aside for a minute and just see where the fellow you deal with is really coming from. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say,

Nothing obliges us to water the seeds of other people's suffering.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

They refuse to have the whole in their head.

In a NYTimes article it is reported that a few hundred attendees of an upcoming neuroscience convention are opposed to a scheduled presentation by the Dalai Lama:

He has been an enthusiastic collaborator in research on whether the intense meditation practiced by Buddhist monks can train the brain to generate compassion and positive thoughts. Next month in Washington, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak about the research at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

But 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, because, according to the petition, "it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity."

Defenders of the Dalai Lama's appearance say that the motivation of many protesters is political, because many are Chinese or of Chinese descent. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese crushed a Tibetan bid for independence.

The nearest thing to a credible reason is this: association of any kind with "spiritual" matters will discredit the "science" involved. I think that reflects the culture of western academics more than any real peril to a growing field of investigation. Its a diaper load of myopia.

If the Dalai Lama is not afraid to submit the practice of meditation to the rigors of scientific investigation, why should scientists be afraid to hear the results? A scientific convention is a form of peer review, the standard form of science self critique. If there really is a lack of rigor in the methods presented, let the attendees decide that and call investigators to account. If they weren't so steeped in preconceptions of what were and were not valid matters for science to examine, the 500 or so petitioners would understand that rather than science itself, meditation is on trial and taking the risk of a damaged reputation.

As for the political motivation of the Chinese signatories, that is contemptible. THAT does reflect poorly on science as it shows a dependence on politics and nationalism that clouds what should be the most objective view of facts.

When you close your mind, you hurt everyone but none so much as yourself. If one man's openmindedness seems like a hole in the head to the next man, so what? These are scientists, not legislators.

Discovery of the truth is impossible if you think you already know the truth.

Perhaps the neuroscientists are afraid of going through this circus. The tools are more objective and the claims far more down to earth for research to be reported than has been the case with TM.

Postlog: 11 November,AAAS' eurekalert posts MRI-based findings reported by Harvad researcher Sara Lazar working at Mass. General Hospital: "meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain".

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Trust me

The executioner goes on and on about our seemingly maladaptive capacity for self delusion. The evidence is staring at us from every news outlet and hallway conversation. The executioner finds supporters of Bush league policies suffering in an alternate reality where, despite all facts, there somehow ARE WMD in Iraq, where, despite all the incriminating memos and cheques passed, Tom Delay is a model of political uprightness, where despite the crystal clarity of the second amendment it is somehow right to try enacting statutes cut and pasted from one sect's scriptures. While it doesn't go far enough in explaining WHY we become active and cooperative participants when we are being lied to, this little study does at least make clear that such cooperation with con men is, as the executioner claims, a "normal" sickness. Somebody sets you up to trust a scoundrel and the set up holds more sway than all the cheating which ensues. Exploiting this phenomenon has been Rove's job since day one and it is why Bush can repeatedly hurt the interests of red necks in blue collars and get away with it. Rove's propaganda work has more impact on the political prosperity of Dubya than the"best and the brightest" did for Kennedy or the "brain trust" did for FDR.

Skepticism is the rougher road, requiring more thinking and more independent sources of information. They'll tell you the smooth road is gated to keep the bad people out. That is the gate to the sheepfold.

The link is to a short summary of a longer and more technical article published in Nature Neuroscience by researchers from Cornell and NYU...worth reading but here is the punchline:

According to Phelps, these findings suggest that "second-hand accounts of moral character can override the impact of first-hand experience of trustworthiness as expressed in both behavioral choices and the underlying neural mechanisms"

Monday, October 17, 2005

A spear only has one point

Be you a nation, a department of war, a splinter cell of some rabid faction or lone wolf member of the elite Abortion Clinic Bombers For Christ...

When you don't care who or how many you kill in order to make your point, what is your point?

Friday, October 14, 2005

pratfall of faith

When an otherwise rational person who professes some religion honestly sets out to examine their system of beliefs, they will eventually get down to some article of faith for which no material or scientifically valid proof is available. Being honest, they just say "This, I just accept. I take the leap of faith to a position of believing this matter without question as the question is unanswerable by any other means."

In religion, this step is necessary. There is no rational way into many of the mysteries of our existence.

In politics and the establishment of laws, policies and the expenditure of taxes to foster the safety and prosperity of the citizenry, such step should be called the pratfall of faith.

Monday, October 10, 2005

There is no bridge in Kashmir

Oct 10 2005

Over the last few hours I have watched the pictures and the numbers coming over the web. Hundreds, then thousands, now tens of thousands are reported dead or injured and the pictures of whole villages where barely one stone is left atop another are horrific. The images of men tearing at rubble with bare hands or fording streams with relief supplies on their backs is heart wrenching. The region shattered happens to encompass a border area where similar numbers of casualties have been racked up over the years of fighting between religions, ethnicities and nations that vie for possession of Kashmir. About 10000 official casualties from hostilities...numbers of civilians lost in guerilla actions not available. Daily, it costs India $10 million and Pakistan $5 million to maintain their troops for the battle here. NRDC estimates that use of the nuclear weapons both countries have spent billions to develop would kill about 10 million or more.

Those governments now ask for assistance in dealing with the rescue and rebuilding after the earthquake. I am not one to impose meanings on events just because they are full of dreadful consequences but the irony of how little nature cares about our disposition of resources in pursuit of our plans and our conflicts is hard to escape in either this news or the gulf coast hurricanes. If our concern for these victims of natural disasters or any people were to match nature's indifference, we would stop spending money on means of annihilating people. We would spend more money on safer housing stock and more robust infrastructure.

We cannot know what state the dead are in ...we can imagine the horror and pain of their last minutes or hours...we can see the devastation of the survivors...but what is the state of the other 99.999% of humanity, the rest of us. Do we ignore our precariousness or live without a minutes rest from trembling? What do we do next now that we can for a moment consider ourselves lucky to be alive and able to cary on? Misery doesn't just love company, it will haunt all its reluctant guests with RSVPs.

We can give

Reaction will never be enough yet the most important thing we can do at this moment is to give these people what help we can scrape up. A comparison that is not meant to downplay the suffering of American hurricane victims none the less is in order now, just to encourage your generosity. Katrina pales next to this calamity. I wound up giving about one dollar to the red cross for each ten persons who died in New Orleans. I don't think I can afford to do that for this earthquake but perhaps the costs will be shared by a larger pool of donors.

And we cannot give in to our appetite for tidy explanations.

You could not write something like The Bridge of San Luis Rey for each of more than 20000 dead. To a reasonable approximation, none were specially deserving of death yet none had an exemption. This is our predicament: there is no charge, there is no jury, there is only the execution.

The great truth about suffering should not be turned into some great lie. I would laugh at the pathetically misguided who may be unable to resist announcing they see in this destruction "gods punishment for ..." I would laugh except that the sources of these idiotic findings so often are the supporters of the misallocation of resources to war making.

We deprive facts of their instructive force by grafting self serving notions of meaning onto the outcomes of uncaring nature.

These events only reaffirm our frailty and they always say "will you be ready next time?" Wars are unnatural and preventable disasters. Natural disasters, we all know, will happen from time to time and we can prepare.

[so much for being oblivious to current events]

NYTimes runs an article 10/16 titled "Doomsday: the Latest Word if Not the Last..." rounding up the various attempts by several regligious crackpots to capitalize on the cluster of natural disasters as an opportunity to push their apocalyptic nonsense. You do not use nature, nature uses you. The times art will be a pain to link to is a paragraph:

But after last week's devastating earthquake in Pakistan, coming as it did after a succession of recent disasters, the apocalyptic speculation, bubbled up again with impressive fervor on many Christian blogs, in some pews and among some evangelical Christian leaders.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Set the alarm, or sleep through your life.

The generally underperceived extent to which we tend to imagine how the world works and then proceed to selectively recall or emphasize experiences that fit our expectations is a theme with the executioner. Getting older apparently doesn't necessarily make us wiser about this debilitating little quirk of the human psyche. By now, my two or three faithful readers are groaning "shut up or tell me something new". Sorry. The executioner wishes to be reminded of his own weaknesses often and so, if only for his own sake, pulls this foible back onto the docket because a bit of fresh evidence turned up. Those elderly who expect that growing older is an unrelenting fading of strength and energy are exactly the ones who tacitly choose to avoid the exercise that would forestall this life sentence of senescence.

The fact that it is a common, perhaps universal inclination leads one to suspect it is inherent in the operation of the mind. And I will go a bit farther and suggest that it is like, for instance, the tendency to diabetes and heart disease, a manifestation of a trait that was not harmful, or even useful at some point in our evolution but which now serves us poorly because we live in a much more complex world than the one that shaped our instincts.

Why my appetite for nagging reminders that I am readily able to fool myself? Because the blessing of our species' particular form of sentience is that choice is available to the awake, a crack in the unscalable wall of biological destiny through which we can wriggle rather than numbly climbing until we slip from being. Exercise your awareness, your skepticism and of course, your cardiovascular system. Be alive!

I just accept this as an observation:

As individuals, we tend to make what we already believe more believable by suppressing awareness of some information.

I wish I understood how individuals somehow collude to arrive at shared delusions about what has happened in the world. You will all have your favorite examples of this phenomena. The one I happen to have a handy link for is this old news story which illustrates that our benighted American voters can block out whole books full of damning facts.

[what books? this is just one of them]

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The lessons our children teach.

Human decency is innate and as deep as a well.

I hope it would not surprise you yet would perhaps reassure you to read what turned up in a study of how children as young as 10 years old handled decision making about their own terminal illnesses. If freely choosing, for instance, to be the guinea pig who tests the safety of an experimental cancer drug knowing it may not make you better is not a death with dignity, I don't know what is. If it is not the courageous choice of one whose consciousness has grown a healthier attachment to life even as their body has sickened, I don't know what is.

If kids can make sound and generously humane decisions about their own end-of-life,

To live or die with dignity when frailty is the essence of our being, a perspective of mature acceptance frees us from blindly and futilely clinging to life.

...and in this, the children may be more grown up than the society.

Monday, October 03, 2005

What I learned in Hooterville today

I shout 'til I'm hoarse at the stupidity and cupidity...its just as likely to fix the world and a lot better for me if I just laugh at it.

Thanks Alicia .