Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Memento Mori – Thinking about death

July 1, 2021

Each night at midnight, I close the book I’m reading, go upstairs, piss, enter the bedroom, climb into bed.

Thinking: Here I am, doing this again. Deja vu? Groundhog Day? It feels like I’d only just performed the exact same actions, moments ago. However, unlike in Groundhog Day, it’s not an endless loop, but inexorably consuming a finite supply of days. Now another one is gone.

That feeling intensifies as I age. The hourglass an increasingly apt metaphor. Indeed, more reality than metaphor.

Except that it actually seems to speed up. When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life, and feels like forever. At 73, a year is only a tiny sliver, and disappears like quicksilver.

Old European paintings often included a skull. This was called “memento mori,” meaning “remember you will die.” And, in those times, likely soon. But those people all supposedly believed they’d go to Heaven. Yet deep down they must have feared it wasn’t true.

I’m certain it’s not, and have a strong sense of memento mori. My wife and I watch a lot of science shows, often depicting ancient skeletons crumbling to dust. In them, I always see myself someday.

With that “someday” nearing with each passing hour. For most of my life the end seemed so far distant I could almost pretend it was never. Now at 73 it feels more like closing in.

Does that frighten me? My wife and I recently had this conversation. “Fright” is not exactly the right word, implying some doubt about the outcome. Instead it’s mindfulness of impending loss, both certain and total. It’s not dying I fear so much as what comes after. Though I won’t be around to experience it. The ultimate philosophical conundrum. People liken death to the eternity of nonexistence preceding one’s birth. But of course that entailed no loss. Whereas loss is quintessential in death.

It’s the loss of everything one loves. All one’s human connections; possessions; prideful accomplishments. All become as those crumbling skeletons in those documentaries. But most importantly it’s one’s aliveness, having experiences, thoughts, sensations, feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to live a wonderful life, which of course makes the loss all the greater.

My mother died recently (not unexpected, at 100). A key feeling I have is that I’m alive and she’s not. Her death is a loss to me but so much greater a loss to her. A life so deeply lived is now simply over. Making me savor all the more my own aliveness. Which only accentuates its coming loss.

It’s impossible to truly grasp that condition of nonexistence. And I try not to. Ordinarily I avoid it, stopping myself if I start thinking too concretely about it. Even here, I’m writing this as an intellectual exercise, while trying to steer clear of the existential quicksand of actually modeling nonexistence in my mind.

Yet even if I keep it vague it’s still there. Sometimes while going about in the world, I’m conscious that when I’m gone it will all continue merrily along just as before. A few people might miss me. A little. For a while. Seeing a newspaper obituary of someone I knew gives me a brief frisson. And then I turn the page. Projecting myself into that place is a weird feeling.

Picasso was someone who really lived life to the fullest. He did a famous self-portrait when he knew he was nearing death. Confronting it was starkly imprinted on his face. I can see myself in his place. But then I think that maybe when I’m, say, 100, I’ll already be “sans everything,” without much of life’s pleasure; it will have grown harder, frustrating, even painful; or I’ll have simply grown tired of it, difficult though that is to imagine. Meantime, as long as it’s at least years away, it can still feel distant enough that I don’t really have to confront it. Indeed, to avoid that kind of stark Picasso-like confrontation, I think I’d actually prefer to fade away gradually and gently, my selfhood dissolving without my realizing it.

Meantime too, I counterpose all this with another fundamental understanding. Existence is not something I take for granted. Not at all; to the contrary, looking at the cosmos, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there should exist an entity such as me, with a consciousness, a sense of self — something which indeed our science, far advanced though it is, cannot totally account for. Thus I see my existence as a virtually miraculous gift.

What a churl I’d be to have this gift while griping that it’s not forever. That is the gift’s conditionality. That’s the deal. I accept it because it’s a good deal. And because there is literally no alternative to accepting it.

Between Two Kingdoms

June 19, 2021

Suleika Jaouad’s book is one of those cancer memoirs. But with a difference.

She had it bad. A lot of health red flags that she ignored, and then doctors misdiagnosed, until it was almost too late. At 22, she had a particularly nasty kind of Leukemia. If I weren’t reading her memoir, I’d have bet she died.

The book gives a vivid, unsparing, brutal account of the long ordeal. With treatments failing, she was put on an experimental one. (I’d have liked more info about that.) But her only real chance was a bone marrow transplant, a dicey proposition. Luckily her brother was a tissue match.

Through it all, her relations with other people — many fellow sufferers — were also center stage. Being much more introverted myself, I was impressed at her breadth of connections, mustering the psychic energy for them while dealing with her own really unimaginable shit. It helped that she even got herself a New York Times column chronicling her experiences.

Suleika’s key relationship was with boyfriend Will. It started before her diagnosis, in New York. Then only weeks later she leaves for a job in Paris. And Will follows. And sticks with her as the hospital nightmare soon unfolds. At 27, he hadn’t originally signed up for three years of hell as a practically full time care-giver, but he embraces it, seemingly almost unreservedly. For nearly the whole saga, Will is a saint who gives Suleika 99%.

But oh, that 1% is a killer.

Well, maybe it was 5% or even 10%. As light appears at the end of the tunnel, he starts taking some breaks from the pressure cooker. But Suleika can’t accept a 90/10 deal. She insists on 100%. Not getting it, she finally blows him off.

Perhaps my take on this was colored by my own decade of hell struggling with a woman’s issues, until she left me to marry a pen-pal. Suleika’s behavior might seem crazily unjustifiable and self-sabotaging. Yet maybe it can be understood, sort of. A normal love relationship is give-and-take, but Suleika’s circumstances were not normal — grotesquely skewed by her illness’s extremis. She did need 100%, and in her mind, anything less was a betrayal.

That’s only the book’s first half. The second concerns her journey between the two kingdoms of the title — the realms of the sick and the well (following Susan Sontag). Suleika does recover. But her years of illness were so all-consuming that a return to the other kingdom was difficult to negotiate. She makes it a literal journey, embarking on a cross-country road trip, with her dog, to meet people who’d connected with her about her Times column.

I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s big hike in Wild, likewise a personal journey. With both gals not exactly prepared for the rigors of their undertakings.

Toward the end, Suleika finally returns to thoughts of Will. She’s actually been considering him the bad guy in the story, with great resentment at what she saw as his ultimate failure to fulfill her immense need. But then, she says, her anger finally drains away; and “in its place, I am able to feel what anger hasn’t allowed me to feel.” That he was there for her when it counted. Now she wants to ask forgiveness. To tell him how much she misses him.

“If this were a movie,” Suleika writes, “I would call Will from the road right now. Maybe, we’d even find our way back to each other.”

I recalled Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where near the end I was practically shouting at Patty to just get in her car and go to Walter. And she does.

But Between Two Kingdoms is not a Franzen novel, nor a movie. It’s real life, in all its exasperating humanness. Suleika doesn’t call.

Kurt Vonnegut’s last and worst novel

June 11, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was one of my favorite writers. One short story really resonated: Harrison Bergeron, who lives in a society so egalitarian that talented people are assigned (by the nation’s Handicapper-General) literal handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being chained to a mass of heavy junk. Naturally he rebels. Vonnegut was a left-winger, but this parable should be required reading for today’s social justice warriors.

At a yard sale I found Vonnegut’s Timequake. I’d thought I’d read all his novels, but this seemed unfamiliar. Actually written in 1997, subsequent to my Vonnegut phase; his final novel. He should have quit while he was ahead.

Like I did, leaving my professional career at 49. Knowing myself as a loose cannon, I figured something would eventually blow up on me if I continued. I’d already had some close calls. So I bowed out.

Vonnegut actually addresses this himself, introducing Timequake as his last novel. Noting that he’d long been working on one “which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place.” Its premise was that in February 2001, Time was reset back to 1991, and everyone had to relive the decade exactly as before. Without free will to do anything differently. (Unlike in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which Vonnegut doesn’t mention.)

Vonnegut refers to that aborted opus as Timequake One, and the actually published work as Timequake Two, calling the latter a stew made from the best parts salvaged from the former. If these are the best parts, it’s good we’re spared the rest.

He describes at some length the chaos ensuing when the “timequake” ends, and free will “kicks back in,” with people now unused to it. Many transport disasters because they didn’t realize they’d have to actively steer, rather than being on the automatic pilot of repeating the past. Amusing perhaps — but actually illogical. Had the prior decade indeed been a perfect repeat, that would have included people making decisions, like steering, which they’d do again. So nothing would have changed. This might raise the eternal philosophical issue of whether free will ever really obtains, with human actions always having causes outside conscious control. But never mind that.

Meantime I wouldn’t call this a novel at all. The timequake stuff is only part of it. Mostly it’s a pastiche of personal self-indulgences, brief riffs that Vonnegut may have imagined being clever and insightful — actually an insipid mishmash of dyspeptic cynical pessimism. The overall message: “Life is a crock of shit.” That’s a quote. All together, the book amounts to nothing much, not only tendentious but tedious. Painful to read for its being a sad coda to what had been a brilliant oeuvre. (Only fairness made me finish reading it, since I’d decided to write about it.)

Just one line in the book almost made me laugh: reference to “a birth control pill that takes all the pleasure out of sex, so teenagers won’t copulate.” My amusement lasted the quarter second it took to wonder who would take such a pill. But pondering, I realized some people actually would: those whose attitudes about sex are messed up by religion.

Vonnegut didn’t pursue that thought, but it’s a segue to noting my two degrees of separation: he does mention his honorary presidency of the American Humanist Association and its being headquartered in Amherst, New York. Where there’s also the connected Center for Inquiry, whose Secular Rescue program (an “underground railroad” for persecuted religious dissenters in mostly Muslim countries) I’ve been funding.

Vonnegut’s humanism, though, is less than full-throated. “Humanists,” he says, “by and large educated, comfortably middle class persons with rewarding lives like [his], find rapture enough in secular knowledge and hope. Most people can’t.”

There again is Vonnegut’s cynical pessimism. And it’s insufferably elitist to think humanism is good for elevated people like him but not the benighted masses. In fact, religious faith has collapsed among most European proletarians. And the evil consequences that preachers eternally warned against are conspicuous for their absence. Non-believing Europeans are fine, well-adjusted, basically happy people, with lesser levels of the “immoral” social pathologies that have actually been more prevalent in more religious societies throughout history. That’s because religion actually does mess up one’s head, with false ideas, in relating to the world. Humanists find that an outlook grounded in reality provides a better path to live well, meaningfully, and morally.

Transgender wars: revisited

May 27, 2021

My 4/29 essay, “Transgender Wars”* basically said transgendering is right and good for many people, while caution is needed when pre-teen and teen kids suddenly decide they’re trans. I criticized trans activists who brook no discussion of that; and criticized the American Humanist Association’s revoking an award to Richard Dawkins for writing that trans and non-trans people differ. Dawkins retweeted my piece. A firestorm of comments venomously attacked my essay, and Dawkins for retweeting it.

I was assailed for calling out extremist trans activists as, well, extremist. The ferocity of many comments proved it. Demonizing anyone not in lockstep with every detail of their catechism, to cast themselves as more enlightened and morally superior. Intolerant “woke” cancel culture in all its censorious Savonarolan glory.

Start with my first sentence: “Changing gender wasn’t even a thing until the 20th Century.” Many commenters deemed this factually false, discrediting all that followed. When obviously the reference was to medical procedures, not gender fluidity. Only by ridiculously assuming it meant the latter could the line be faulted. Showing these commenters are just spoiling for a fight, keen to manufacture heresies to condemn.

Many savaged my effort to explain what’s going on with transgender people. Often fiercely nitpicking the words I used — which aimed for understandability by average readers. Such semantic onslaughts too are unfortunately characteristic of “woke” intolerance. With a canonical vocabulary, those failing to ape it placing themselves beyond the pale. Like insistence on “cis-” language, arch and baffling to ordinary folks. (See my essay about “people of color” versus “colored people.” Someone who almost uttered the latter excoriated by, among others, the National Association for the Advancement of — um — Colored People.**)

I was trying to enlighten those who think wanting to change sex is merely some kind of perverted whim. Males and females differ genetically and anatomically. I said male and female brains differ too, and that “gender dysphoria” entails a mismatch between brain and body. Perhaps an oversimplification — yet a useful conceptualization. Thus I said gender dysphoria is biological, not just psychological, so cannot be resolved by talk therapy.

Trans advocate commenters pounced, vehemently rejecting this. Denying brains differ vis-a-vis sexuality, and the idea of a mismatch. Indeed disagreeing that this is a matter of biology and not just psychology. Again it seems they just want to have a fight. But how does their stance here (nonsensical to me) serve their cause? If they’re right and I’m wrong, and it’s not biological, then those who are hostile to the whole transgender thing might have a point after all. That it’s all just some weird whim of transgender people.

I’m basically libertarian, holding that everyone should be free to live as they please (barring harm to others). If a man wants to live as a woman, fine by me. But not everyone is so broadminded. It needs explaining that there’s more to it than transgender people making some off-the-wall personal choice. That’s what I tried to do. Earning attacks from transgender zealots, arguing it is all about choice. Go figure.

My chief crime was, despite strongly supporting the reality of most trans people, criticizing the insistence that anyone declaring themselves trans must be supported in physical transitioning. My point was again confirmed by commenters’ expressed absolutism. Refusing to acknowledge there’s any sort of problem involving kids suddenly coming out as trans, who may be mixed up (often simply gay, it turns out). A cautious go-slow approach by adults is not tolerated. With denial that medical interventions in such cases are frequently irreversible and can entail serious health and psychological harm. One size does not fit all.

Dawkins’s “offense” was, again, pointing to the undeniable fact that trans- and non-trans-women (or men) differ. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated the same (for most purposes). But trans extremists act as though the latter proposition somehow demands denial of the former. As if we don’t treat men and women the same (for most purposes) even while recognizing the differences. Insistence on an obviously false absolutism of non-difference makes for an ideology flouting reason. Not a good way to persuade anyone.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/transgender-wars-2/

** https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2020/01/11/people-of-color-versus-colored-people-call-in-the-language-police/

What’s the big deal with Wittgenstein?

May 18, 2021

I was tickled when my publisher’s catalog displayed my book opposite one by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As if we’re on a par. Just name-drop Wittgenstein to sound intellectually pretentious. 

The title of his big book was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (A take-off on Spinoza.) Talk about intellectual pretentiousness. That seems a common malady for book titles in this genre. I prefer ones that actually say something. Like Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its EnemiesThat lays down a gauntlet. (Mine was The Case for Rational Optimism.) 

I also prefer a book that actually says something. What is philosophy really for? It should help us grapple with the fundamental problems of existence, human life, and society. I’ve read some Wittgenstein, finding there nothing of the sort. That’s true of much of modern academic philosophy, going down esoteric rabbit holes, with scant relevance to real human concerns. 

Wittgenstein’s main focus was language. Language and its use in human thought does raise important conceptual issues worthy of exploration. But can that help us much in figuring out how to understand the cosmos and live our lives?

Wittgenstein actually said, “The reason why philosophical problems are posed at all is owing to a misunderstanding of language.” And he dismissed past philosophizing as just verbal trickery trying to answer unanswerable questions; while our life problems have their roots in linguistic confusion. I think those assertions themselves epitomize the very thing Wittgenstein was denigrating. Our essential dilemmas are real, even if we have trouble finding the words to express and address them.

This leads to Wittgenstein’s own central concern — the correspondence between reality and language. He theorized language being formulated to correspond to actual “states of affairs” like a map corresponds to a landscape. But Wittgenstein finally decided that’s impossible; we’re prisoners of our language. There is no “meta language” that could transcend that. After all, in what except language could we even talk about this problem? He ultimately saw no way of firmly connecting language to the external world.

Meantime, Wittgenstein regarded most philosophical arguments as really resolving into disputes over the meaning of words. “Is abortion murder?” depends on exactly what meanings we attach to those operative words. But meaning is itself an elusive concept. He famously cited the word “game,” which he said can have a multitude of different meanings. 

To which I say: so what? Yes, words can have different meanings, and languages aren’t always logical. Simply because they evolve organically, through use, rather than being constructed in laboratory conditions. We know that. Again — so what? It doesn’t stop language fulfilling its purpose. Saying “game the system” versus “play a game” versus “hunting game” versus “I’m game for that” does not render the word somehow problematical on some deep level. We understand what each phrase means. Thus language does its job.

That does include the job of mapping the world. True, language does that imperfectly. So, for that matter, do our senses, at the initial task of gathering information about reality even before we put it into words. But for all the philosophical gnashing of teeth over how we cannot apprehend reality at some ultimate level of realness, nevertheless we actually do pretty darn well at it — or else we couldn’t survive for ten minutes in our unforgiving environment.

So I don’t see what was such a big deal about Wittgenstein. To me the Tractatus seems fundamentally trivial. But I’m actually not alone in that view. 

Wittgenstein himself, in a posthumously published book, called the whole thing circular and devoid of meaning. And while the Tractatus ended by saying, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” now Wittgenstein said such matters are all that’s worth thinking about. 

Transgender wars

April 29, 2021

Changing gender wasn’t even a thing till the 20th century.* This new concept discombobulated many minds, with hostility toward trans people. But now, happily, they’ve won the argument over their right to be themselves. In fact we seem to have gone to the other extreme. Transgender issues have become a minefield of political correctness, with a pitiless orthodoxy one mustn’t question. 

Here are the biological facts. Standard females — I use “standard” to describe most people, others reflecting naturally occurring differences — have two X chromosomes; males an X and a Y. Those genes guide development of an embryo’s sex characteristics. Male and female anatomies differ, as does the brain software accompanying each. Deploying all this in utero is a complex, tricky process, and glitches can occur. 

Obviously, for reproduction’s sake, standard brain software tells men to mate with women, and vice versa. But sometimes variant software gives you same-sex attraction. It’s not a choice. (Try to imagine yourself choosing it.)

More rare is a mismatch between anatomy and brain software. A genetic and anatomical female can get a male brain, and feel male in their heads. This is called gender dysphoria. Not a psychological condition, it’s actually biological. It tends to show up quite early in life (because males and females are raised and acculturated differently), and no psychotherapy can talk it away. Though of course some people try to fight it or deny it, and to live with it.

But now it can be rectified. Such children are typically given puberty blocker medication, to delay sexual maturation until an age when they can make an informed choice to undergo sex change treatment. That at least is the idea. We’ll get back to this.

Previously, gender dysphoria did seem quite rare. Less so now, with all the attention and ready access to treatment. In fact, it’s acquired a kind of cachet, with transitioning not just accepted, but even made attractive.

So we’re seeing an epidemic of “late onset gender dysphoria,” showing up during puberty and adolescence. Mostly girls coming out as trans males. And today’s society is very supportive of their choice — indeed hostile toward any impediments. They’re often moved straightaway to puberty blockers and/or hormone treatments, on a path to surgery. In one Australian case, a child was removed from parents who resisted. 

But hold on. These years are emotionally and psychologically tumultuous even for standard kids. Wrestling with their emerging sexuality and personal identities, especially sensitive to social pressures and their place in a peer group. Now bombard them with positive messages about transsexuality, the internet full of it, trans kids showered with affirmation, making it look hip, cool, chic. While standardhood is so . . . dull. Convincing yourself that your confusing sexual feelings mean you’re trans might seem a great way to get attention, cut through the fog, and assert an edgy personal identity. (We used to have the term “drama queen.”) 

Parents who suspect something like this are dismissed as bigots. But they may be right. Seeing not true biologically based gender dysphoria, but a self-induced simulacrum. Which, with no medical interventions, many youngsters in due course get over. Studies indicate that between 61% and 98% of even early onset cases, once reaching adulthood, with all the life changes that entails, wind up accommodated with their genetic genders after all.

Another aspect is that a disproportionate number of these cases actually involve forms of autism, depression, or other psychological problems. Importantly, many of these kids, once they get a clearer fix on their sexuality, turn out simply to be gay. Which is indeed far more common than true gender dysphoria. And for which sex change is not a good answer. 

But meantime many will already be on a one-way track, thanks to the trans-industrial-complex seizing them in its jaws to execute their previous choice to transition. Backing out can take more guts than coming out. Though blocking puberty is said to be reversible, that’s true only up to a point. It certainly creates a biological platform that’s not natural. And use of hormones and other chemicals, not to mention surgery, has lifelong impacts. Even just hormone treatments, writes The Economist, “cause myriad severe health problems,” including heart problems for trans men on testosterone. And many who undergo such treatments, who later regret it, can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. A gal in Britain had her breasts removed before realizing she’s just a lesbian. Others are unable to orgasm. Or sire children. Some are left incompletely transitioned, in a limbo between genders. The psychological damage can be huge. 

Trans activists refuse to hear any of this. I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s “Stalin doctrine” — once a country is communist, no reversal could be countenanced. So extreme has the trans ideology become that its advocates often seem to insist this isn’t biological at all, that gender (unlike sexual orientation) is a personal choice. That anyone saying they’re a woman must be accepted as female in all respects. Penises be damned. In some places where “conversion therapy” for gays is (justifiably) outlawed, there are efforts to apply the same policy to gender identity — a very different matter. This could prohibit counseling to explore what’s really going on in a claimed case of late onset gender dysphoria, a sensible go-slow approach before jumping to medical intervention. 

Unsurprisingly, there’s a backlash. Some states are moving toward outlawing transition medicine, an opposite craziness. Particularly fraught is the sports realm. Should trans women be allowed to race against standard ones? Men’s and women’s sports were made separate in the first place because of relevant physical differences. Allowing XY people to compete as women scrambles that. Trans athletes have rights but so do cis-gender women. This is a mess. I would solve it with a simple penis rule.

J.K. Rowling got denounced for insisting cis- and trans-women are not biologically identical. More recently Richard Dawkins (noting Rachel Dolezal condemned for posing as Black) wrote “Some men choose to identify as women and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.” Previously he’d deemed the issue “purely semantic,” saying he calls a trans woman “she” out of courtesy.

The American Humanist Association Board voted to revoke Dawkins’s 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award. Dawkins might really be the humanist of the epoch, having spent a lifetime as a top battler for science and rationalism. But none of that counts, for the trans Torquemadas who make the slightest nuance of deviation from their extremist orthodoxy a capital offense. The AHA has lost its mind and disgraced the humanist cause.

This should be a medical issue, not a political one. (Though in today’s polarized America, everything is political.) I salute the courage of transgender people who, in mature consideration, face up to their personal reality and take on the very great challenge of changing gender. But I also feel sorry for immature youngsters who, during a time of stress and confusion, make a dubious choice and find themselves locked into it by adults who should know better. Who should act with caution and thorough analysis before irrevocable action, violating the most fundamental of medical precepts — first, do no harm. But who are too scared of being pilloried as transphobic bigots.

As I will surely be.**

*NOTE: That sentence has been criticized as false. Obviously people were gender-fluid long before the 20th century. The intended reference was to medical/surgical interventions to change gender. If there were any such cases before the 20th century they were vanishingly rare.

** This essay owes much to an in-depth analytical piece, and accompanying editorial, in The Economist: https://www.economist.com/international/2020/12/12/an-english-ruling-on-transgender-teens-could-have-global-repercussions

Our Gal in the New York Times

April 18, 2021

My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, has made her debut in the august pages of The New York Times. A letter to the editor, signifying serious chops. And it’s in her chosen field of professional endeavor — educational development in disadvantaged spheres. 

Furthermore, happily, I agree with her (not always true). The article she was answering I found basically naive. (Here is a link to it: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/opinion/stanford-admissions-campus.html.) The writer suggests that higher education opportunities for non-rich people could be expanded by simply “cloning” schools like Harvard. Here’s Elizabeth’s trenchant response:

Mr. Kirp suggests that elite universities should “clone” themselves, opening second branches around the country to allow more students to enroll and access their high-quality education. “It’s not hard,” Mr. Kirp writes, “to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.”

This is one of those shiny ideas whose sparkle far exceeds any potential impact. Allowing another 6,700 students to enroll in Harvard’s undergrad program every year would do little to address the systemic issues that make it so difficult for so many students to get into — not to mention pay for — elite universities in the first place.

Why not use that eight-figure check to help pay off student loans nationwide, or increase access to high-quality preschools, or set up tutoring programs for high-potential but struggling teenagers, or provide scholarships for the many low-income students who, as Mr. Kirp notes, have already demonstrated they can succeed at elite universities?

Dedicated efforts to mitigate income and educational inequalities across the country would do more to help these universities realize their mission than simply duplicating the same restrictive admissions dynamics in another city. And Harvard already has not an eight but an 11-figure check at the ready: its endowment.*

Note that Elizabeth has her own blog too (https://lizrobinson.squarespace.com/blog/) Mostly discussing issues in the realm of humanitarian work. (The latest post suggests aid agencies competing for the “custom” of aid recipients — a fascinating concept. But she also tackles personal life issues.) 

Elizabeth noted that writing letters-to-the-editor is something she got from me. I had one in the Times over 50 years ago. It defended Vietnam “draft dodgers” — while noting that if drafted I myself would serve. Frankly somewhat disingenuous, as I was trying hard to medically disqualify. 

My picture was once in The Times too. Because I was, indeed, a poor physical specimen, to fill my college’s phys ed requirement I looked for something non-athletic — and hit upon “outdoor education and camping.” Not foreseeing an actual camping trip. Oddly enough, a Times reporter covered it. He wrote that everyone showed enthusiasm — except for “one grim youth who carried his gear in a red plaid suitcase.” There was a photo (from the back).

I used that suitcase for years afterward. 

But my Times record is not all bad. Just as I started dating my now-wife, she, a librarian, stumbled upon an article there about a regulatory decision of mine. Nice way to impress a girl! 

* As it happens, Elizabeth just got accepted by Harvard for graduate school, but she hasn’t decided. 

How to Create a Mind

April 15, 2021

Humans try to understand our reality. Including how our minds do that. 

“Futurist” Ray Kurzweil has posited a coming “singularity” when artificial intelligence outstrips ours, and everything changes. His book How to Create a Mind seeks to reverse-engineer our minds, to apply that knowledge to AI’s development.

Our thinking about something, perceiving something, remembering something, etc., may seem simple. We just do it. Like tapping an app on your phone just brings it up. But hidden, behind that app icon, is a tremendous web of complexity. Our minds are like that. We normally don’t need to peek under the hood. Unless we want to truly understand ourselves.

Consider hitting a baseball. Coming at you with maybe a second to calculate its path, and the precise body motions needed to connect bat with ball. Imagine trying to work it all out consciously. But we don’t have to. The brain does it for us.

Steven Pinker’s book How the Mind Works went through an exercise of identifying all the logic steps for answering a fairly simple question, how an uncle and nephew are related. That answer might seem obvious. Yet the necessary logic consumed quite a few pages — reminding me of Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica laying out 362 pages of logic to reach 1+1=2. 

But Pinker’s example assumes you understand the question in the first place. And that’s a whole ‘nother thing — which Kurzweil explores. What does “understanding” really mean?

The mind can be seen as arising (or emerging) from the the workings of billions of neurons. Kurzweil probes how that happens, on a deep level. Pattern recognition is central. We are bombarded with incoming sensory data; its information content, in bits, is astronomical. If we couldn’t detect patterns to make it intelligible we couldn’t function.

You see a mass of pixels, detect the pattern of a lion, and run. (Indeed, for extra safety, evolution actually gave us overdeveloped pattern recognition, often seeing things that aren’t there. Making us suckers for supposed paranormal and supernatural stuff, including religion.) 

Kurzweil casts the brain as consisting largely of a massive number of parallel processing modules (each comprising around a hundred neurons) for pattern recognition. And this too, like the uncle-nephew logic mentioned, is deep with complexity. You don’t just simply seea pattern. Much has to happen for that perception to arise. 

Take reading. You seemingly glide across the page effortlessly. But obviously, before you can understand a sentence, you have to understand each word; and before you can even see a word, you have to see each letter. But it doesn’t stop there. An “A” has two slanted upright lines, and a horizontal line. The brain has to register not only each of those, but also their orientations and positioning. Then it has to refer back to, and compare against, its stored database of letter memory, to come up with the brilliant synthesis: “That’s an A!”

Kurzweil describes our brain’s pattern recognition modules as working hierarchically; passing information up and down the line. You start with the A’s three components. That information goes to the next level(s) where the lines’ positions and orientations are registered. Once you’ve got the A, it goes up to a yet higher level bringing it together with other letters. More upward steps are needed to “get” a whole sentence.

But meantime, information is also being passed down the hierarchy, which Kurzweil deems at least equally important. Because at each level, the system generates tentative conclusions and predictions of what’s likely coming next. This greatly speeds the whole process. 

If you’ve got an A, and then a P, P, and L, you may expect an E next. The context can eliminate other possibilities (I, A, or Y). This analysis would occur at a yet higher level, and be passed back down the system.

This at least is Kurzweil’s model. I’m not sure I entirely buy it. While the logic is unarguable, I think we learn shortcuts. I don’t think the brain has to go through all those steps to grasp the word “apple;” we do recognize it as a unit, in one go. That’s what learning to read really is. 

Nevertheless, the Kurzweil model helps to understand some aspects of our mental processing. At the highest levels of the hierarchy, we are collating inputs even from different sensory systems, and developing abstract concepts. This is the level at which the self emerges.

Kurzweil discusses IBM’s “Watson” program that won at Jeopardy! Watson understood the questions sufficiently to answer them, but some say that’s different from what is meant when we say a human “understands” something. Kurzweil counters, however, that the hierarchical processing in both cases is really the same. What’s different is having a sense of self. 

Consciousness and the self are deep conundrums. Philosophers posit the zombie problem: if a seeming human exhibits all the behavior we expect, but without inner conscious experience, how could anyone tell the difference?

At some point this will become a big issue with respect to artificial intelligence. Claims will be made for AI consciousness. Kurzweil believes we’ll accept it as a matter of course, citing how we empathize with characters like R2D2 in popular entertainment. I think that’s way too optimistic and the real thing will provoke ferocious resistance. Some people still can’t accept other ethnicities as fully human. Robot protest marches will demand their human rights.

And while Kurzweil thinks we will accept artificial consciousness that emulates the human sort, what about completely different, alien forms of consciousness? May be hard to conceptualize, but we certainly cannot assume ours is the only possible kind. What might the differences be? Here’s one: they may not necessarily have emotions — love or fear, for example — that mirror ours.

And if we do encounter some non-human consciousness, machine or otherwise, how — as with zombies — will we know it? Pioneer computer theorist Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test. Whether a machine, interrogated by a human, can convince them it is conscious. This never made sense to me. A human’s mere subjective judgment here cannot be conclusive. Surely a computer can be programmed (like Watson) sufficiently to give answers that seem to pass the Turing test.

Amconscious? I perform, to myself, all the indicia of consciousness, as a zombie would. Am I fooling myself, in the way a zombie would? But who or what is “myself” in that question? This is actually a puzzle I think about a lot. My brain has thoughts I know about. And I know I know about them. And know that I do. This can go on forever with no final knower. I can never seem to put my finger on the “me-ness” at the bottom of it all. This is what makes consciousness and the self such maddeningly hard problems. And if we don’t truly understand the nature of our own consciousness, how could we determine whether some other entity is conscious? 

Kurzweil then tackles the free will conundrum. A key aspect concerns the distinction between conscious and unconscious decision making. The famous Libet experiment seemed to show that a conscious decision to act is preceded by unconscious readying in the brain. Kurzweil discusses this and then poses the question: does it matter? If our actions and decisions arise from both unconscious and conscious brain activity, don’t both aspects represent one’s mind? Both really just parts of one unified system?

Kurzweil hypothesizes a procedure to create an artificial duplicate of you. Down to every cell and neuron. Maybe with some improved roboticized features. It certainly, of course, behaves as you do. If you are conscious, so must it be. But would you be okay with having your old incarnation dispensed with, replaced by the new one? “You” would still exist, no? Well, I don’t think so. (That’s a problem regarding teleportation. “Beam me up, Scotty” may have seemed fine in Star Trek, but I would refuse it.)

But Kurzweil goes on: imagine a more limited procedure, replacing one brain module with an improved artificial one. No problem there. We already do such things — e.g., cochlear implants. Of course you’re still you. But suppose we keep going and in steps replace every part of your brain.

This is the ancient story of the Ship of Theseus. So famous it was preserved. Its wooden planks would periodically rot and be replaced. In time, none of the original wood remained. Was it still “the Ship of Theseus?” Our bodies actually do this too, replacing our cells constantly (though brain cells are the longest lived). You still feel you are you.

Kurzweil does envision progressively more extensive replacement of our biological parts and systems with superior artificial ones. In my own landmark 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? I foresaw an eventual convergence between our biological selves and the artificial systems we devise to enhance our capabilities. Human intelligence has enabled us to make advances, solve problems, and improve our quality of life at an incredibly accelerating pace. That will go into overdrive once conscious artificial intelligence kicks in. Kurzweil says an “ultraintelligent” machine will be the last invention humanity will ever have to make. 

Leadership lessons: How (not) to get girls

April 10, 2021

Governor Andrew Cuomo hungered for feminine companionship. I can relate to that. All his power and glory may not cut it for him without a woman in the picture. And he’s horny. But being governor actually kind of constrains him in a box.

So (as the pattern becomes clear) what he does is to surround himself with pretty young women in subordinate roles, then puts the move on them. Summoned into his office to “help with his phone.” One he tells he’s “single and ready to mingle,” and then grabs her breast.

Maybe I’m naive, or a sappy romantic, but I just don’t get it. I think about my own history with women. For a long time I was very inhibited. Even out on a date it would never have entered my head to just grab a girl like that. Maybe if drunk? I was never drunk. But neither was Cuomo, on those occasions.

Eventually I did learn how to get it on with a girl. But not the Cuomo way. Did this (otherwise) very savvy man think this was the way to initiate a sexual relationship? Governor: find a woman not your subordinate. Ask her out on a date. On the phone. Politely. Nobody can fault that. If she accepts, then the rules are different from in the office. (But even then you don’t just grab.)

But I guess I don’t have the mentality of a Cuomo. Long accustomed to getting what he wants. Then again, here he doesn’t seem to have gotten it. Unless we just haven’t heard from women he did shag. But somehow I doubt that. His behavior seems more like that of a guy not getting any.

Now, I like kissing a woman. And feeling a breast, and getting aroused. Et cetera. But the physical sensations are very much secondary to the atmospherics of human intimacy they signify. That she enjoys it. I can’t imagine it gratifying me otherwise; especially not otherwise, when the personal dynamics are the opposite. So it just baffles me that some men do seem to get jollies that way. Very messed up, I think.

Particularly considering the risks. Even if feeling that breast did provide some nanoseconds of thrill (however psychologically perverse), could that remotely have been worth the risk of the repercussions? For a man in Cuomo’s position? It seems insane.

Indeed, he’s now surely in a tighter box. 

Richard Dawkins’s 80th birthday party

March 25, 2021

Richard Dawkins is one of my intellectual heroes. I was thrilled to be invited to his 80th birthday party, on zoom, with about twenty others; hosted by Robyn Blumner (head of the Dawkins Foundation and allied Center for Inquiry, home of Secular Rescue, which I support, a kind of underground railroad for atheists persecuted in mostly Muslim countries). 

Dawkins has authored numerous landmark books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Blind Watchmaker (which I’ve reviewed). He spoke of two imminent new ones: Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science, a collection of pieces about other books, and Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution, about how both nature and humans have solved the problem of getting airborne.

I got a chance to tell him how important some of his books have been to me, particularly The Selfish Gene — saying that if you really understand that book, you understand evolution. In response, Dawkins remarked that he’s often asked whether he’d retract the book (published in 1976), but he still feels confident it’s right. Its take on evolution might seem extreme. In a nutshell: Life must have begun (no alternative is conceivable) with a molecule having the capability to replicate. As copies proliferated, variations crept in. Effectively putting them in competition. Variants proving better at staying in existence and replicating would become more numerous. In that competition they’d develop “survival machines.” Those molecules are genes; the survival machines are organisms. Just devices for getting more genes into the next generation. That, indeed, is what humans are, in the big scheme of things. (And a chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.) 

This doesn’t trivialize our lives. Indeed, having no cosmic purpose frees us to set our own agenda.

I also got to submit a (cheeky) question — in what year do you predict the last remaining believers in conventional religions will be generally regarded as crazy crackpots? Dawkins started by noting that many past religions have fallen by the wayside, only to be supplanted by others no better. He fears that today’s religions will be replaced by “dopey woo-woo new age superstition.” Yet directly answering my question, he said a pessimistic estimate would be a hundred years! (That actually seems optimistic to me.) 

Asked how people can be dissuaded from false beliefs (a question he must get daily), Dawkins avowed that evidence, alas, doesn’t do the trick, because people’s beliefs actually have little to do with evidence, being more a function of tribal affiliation. Frustration at this led him to suggest telling religious people, “This is science. If you don’t agree with it, fuck off.” 

But one thing he did seriously urge was to stop calling evolution a “theory.” Yes, yes, scientists use that word differently from its everyday sense, but creationists exploit this by labeling evolution “just a theory.” It’s as much a fact, said Dawkins, as Earth going around the Sun. 

Also on the subject of labeling, he said we should stop automatically calling the children of Christians “Christians,” and so forth. It’s something unique to the religious realm; the offspring of Marxists aren’t called Marxist children. Small kids are too young to know their minds on these matters. Eliminating such labeling would help free them to find their own paths, breaking the perpetuation of false beliefs down the generations. Now if only religious parents would comply. 

Doubt toward science right now is manifesting in widespread resistance to covid vaccination. Dawkins, discussing this, observed that development of these vaccines is actually a bigger scientific breakthrough than most of us realize. Not just another typical set of vaccines, but using a different paradigm, employing Messenger-RNA — which should enable researchers to readily tweak them to fit other emerging ailments. 

Interestingly, some scientists now think the primordial molecule that started life was something like RNA.