Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Does religion cause violence?

May 28, 2017

A congressional candidate physically assaults a reporter — and gets elected. What the f— is happening to this country? And meantime atrocities are committed with cries of “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great!”

Once again my wife gifted me with a book to challenge me: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

The rap is that religion, by instilling a notion of absolute truth and a limitless sense of righteousness, inspires violence. As witness all the persecutions, religious wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, all the way to 9/11 and ISIS. Some say this outweighs any good religion does, and we’d be better without it.

Armstrong, a leading historian of religion, has a different take. She aims to get religion off the hook, with (the back cover says) “a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.”

Well, for a book about “the peaceful nature of faith,” it sure is soaked in blood, amply living up to the title. It is a depressing, horrifying read. Yet, in chronicling one atrocity after another, Armstrong’s basic point is that religious belief per se is not their root cause. Instead, religion has often been cover for what is really more about politics, power, and lucre.

In pursuing those, some actors are more cynical than others. And while, for men at the top (and it’s mostly been men) cynicism may have reigned supreme, for the foot soldiers in the killing fields religious zealotry often provided the indispensable motivator.

Armstrong does repeatedly stress what she considers to be the peaceful teachings of most religions. Yet there can be a cognitive disconnect. She puzzles over how the Crusaders, for example, could reconcile what she calls their psychotic violence with the teachings of the faith they were supposedly fighting for. But she also explains how battle and slaughter themselves can inspire a kind of extremist ecstasy. I would add: especially when coupled with a sense of supreme religious righteousness. So religion is, indeed, very much part of the problem.

It is also important to understand that through most of history, political power was not the thing we know today. The idea of the state serving the needs and interests of the citizenry is quite a modern concept. Previously, the state was essentially a vehicle of predation, with whatever good it did being calculated to keep the populace sufficiently submissive that their pockets could be efficiently picked for the benefit of the rulers.

Luther

God was part of the formula by which the powerful ruled, for their self-aggrandizement. Armstrong makes the point that only in modern times has “religion” come to be seen as a thing unto itself. Previously it was integrally bound up with the whole culture, including its political and power structures; “separation of church and state” would have made no sense to those populations. But Martin Luther argued for it, saying that religion should be something private, interior, and that marrying it with state power was an unending source of trouble.

Locke

And the philosopher John Locke made a similar case from the standpoint of human liberty – that it was just wrong to try to compel religious belief. But it took some further horrors (like the Thirty Years War, killing 35% of Europe’s population) to convince sensible heads that Luther and Locke were right.

Note too that before modern times there was really no such thing as economic growth. That meant one state (its rulers, really) could get richer only at the expense of another. A further impetus to warfare in which, again, religious pretexts were very useful.

The emergence of the modern state curbed a lot of the violence that was so endemic. Today most governments do at least try to serve their citizenries, and prosper better through trade than war. This is a key reason why violence has in fact so markedly declined (as well explained in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) A noteworthy exception today is Syria – very much an old time predatory state (if at this point you could even call it a state). And then there’s ISIS, whose demented violence is not really attached to any state, in the modern sense, either.

But that religion per se, religion itself, still causes violence is all too evident. Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan, experience intensifying lynchings of accused “blasphemers.” And it’s not the work of just a few extremists, but a widespread cultural pathology. A Pakistani student was recently dragged from his dorm room, by classmates, and brutally killed, on some vague accusation of blasphemy.

Speaking of violence, I was unable to finish the book – it fell victim to the January Fort Lauderdale airport shooter. I went to Fort Laud for a coin show and planned to fly home that Friday evening. Because of the shooting I could not fly till Sunday. I scheduled a cab for 6:00 AM and a 5:45 wake-up call. The call didn’t come, but I awakened at 5:54, and rushed out. In the rush, the book got left behind.

Niebuhr

I will end by quoting Reinhold Niebuhr: religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.

I renounce my Republicanism

May 14, 2017

I have been a Republican for 53 years. I have served as an elected party official; have run campaigns and run for office as a Republican; was appointed by President Nixon to a federal commission. Republicanism has been part of my personal identity.

I came by it the hard way, not by inheritance. I grew up in a Democratic family, in a Democratic neighborhood, in FDR’s afterglow. The party seemed to represent bland conventional wisdom. Until the 1964 Goldwater campaign gave me something stronger: fierce principles that felt right to me. I became a political activist. And not just a Republican, but a very conservative Republican.

The national and global issues were, of course, important. But Tip O’Neill’s dictum, “all politics is local,” supervened when I came to Albany in 1970. In place of somewhat abstract opposition to distant evils, I imbibed the heady brew of battling evil up close in my new home town, ruled by a corrupt old-time political machine. Here the Republican party was the avatar of civic virtue. This was a moral crusade (more about that here).

My period of intense political involvement ended when that crusade fizzled out. Yet my allegiance to the party’s basic ideals and principles continued.

And then, starting around 1980, the GOP got religion. It’s hard to remember now, but previously religion played very little role in what the party represented. Most Republicans may have been religious, but that was separate from politics. God was rarely mentioned. The Republicanism that originally attracted me was grounded in reason, in the values of the Enlightenment, in a classical philosophical liberalism (a word American “liberals” wrongly co-opted), aimed at making a world in which all people can best thrive.

Religion undermines this. One cannot apply reason to the world’s problems while mistaking the fundamental nature of reality. Religion is magical thinking, and that has infected Republican politics. We see this in their comprehensive scientific denialism. But nothing better epitomizes magical thinking, divorced from reason and reality, than putting in the White House a bad man who is the antithesis of everything godly people supposedly honor.

And of course the policies the Republican party now stands for are unrecognizable to this veteran of ’64. It sure isn’t conservatism. (Which, among other things, was strongly anti-communist. Now we’re a veritable Russian satellite.) But actually the old categories of conservative versus liberal, right versus left, have become a muddle. Today’s real political divide is between open and closed orientations. It’s openness to trade, to markets, to immigrants, to human diversity, to change, to ideas, to facts. With an outward-looking America building a world of open societies. Republicans flunk on all counts.

But my disaffection from Republicanism is more a matter of culture and values than policies or ideology. Those are trumped by the principles of rationalism, responsibility, just plain decency, and, in a word, humanism. Republicans and their regime trash all of it. Their xenophobia, ethnic nationalism, fondness for dictators, callousness and moralistic hypocrisy are repellent. They’re drenched in lies. They shred basic American values. They’re a freak show, disgracing the country.

Remember, this is not a Democrat talking, but a lifelong Republican — one not blinded (like most) by partisanship.

I have plenty of ideological problems with today’s Democrats and the Left (as expressed on this blog). But they are more humanistic. Their ideas about economics and social justice are often barmy, but at least they are genuinely concerned with human values, and at least their feet are planted, more or less, on this Earth. At least they mostly respect truth and reason (though freedom of expression not so much). They are serious and responsible. I like them better as people. Republicans’ behavior has become thoroughly hateful to me.

Are they irredeemable? For a long while now, it’s been asked when sane, public-minded Republicans would finally get it together and stand against Trump. Well, forget it, there just aren’t enough John McCains in the GOP. (And even McCain, whose heroism was smeared by Trump, nevertheless endorsed him.) No, Republicans, almost unanimously, have drunk the Kool-Aid.

(And, in their eyes, have been rewarded. The party has more power now than at any time since the 1920s. Even though Democrats actually have more voter support; Republican control is due to the Senate and electoral college math disproportionately empowering smaller and less urban states, and to gerrymandered House districts. But this doesn’t temper Republican triumphalist hubris.)

And so, after much agonizing, in recognition of today’s reality, I can no longer call myself a Republican. It’s not the party I joined. I must cut out that part of my selfhood. But I cannot join the Democrats’ own misguided leftward march.* I am cast out into the political wilderness.

I am not alone there. But most of the country remains stuck in the two hostile partisan camps. It’s a very destructive syndrome, with no cure I can see.

* “Socialism” has been pronounced dead even in France!

The decline of Western civilization and its values

May 4, 2017

David Brooks is my favorite commentator writing today. I don’t always agree with him — too much religion — but in most ways his head’s screwed on right and his work repays attention. A recent column crystallizes well my own global perspective.

Brooks starts by citing Will and Ariel Durant’s popular mid-20th century multi-volume opus, The Story of Civilization. It was really the narrative of Western civilization and the values undergirding its flourishing, including reasoned discourse, property rights, and a belief in human progress. I would add accountable democratic government, open markets, and scientific inquiry. It was the emergence of these Enlightenment ideas that propelled the West’s phenomenal achievement in improving people’s quality of life.

But this narrative, especially in universities, has lost its mojo — intellectually speaking. People don’t read the Durants, or their like, any more. Indeed, the construct “Western civilization” has actually fallen into bad odor, as “a history of oppression.” Now we are being educated to distrust, rather than honor, what it means. “The great cultural transmission belt broke.”

This intellectual reversal has had huge real-world impacts. There have always been forces eager to tear down what the West stands for. But now the citadel has few defenders against these onslaughts. So we see the rise of “illiberal” strongmen — Putin, Erdogan, al-Sisi, Xi, Trump — who, unlike previous bad guys, don’t even give lip service to democratic Western values.

Turkey’s recent vote turned its back on them. Democracy is no longer seen as the wave of the future. In “advanced” nations, the center doesn’t hold. In Europe mainstream political parties lose ground to fringe ones with fierce ideologies. In America, where you’d expect universities to be redoubts of intellectual freedom, the opposite is seen — destruction of those values, as nonconforming voices are literally shouted down. America’s president (an historical ignoramus) cozies up to some of the world’s worst thugs.

“The basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding following the loss of faith in democratic ideals.” The percentage of young Americans polled who say it’s “absolutely important” to live in a democracy has dropped from 91% in the 1930s to only 57% today. In his campaign, “Trump violated every norm of statesmanship built up over these many centuries” — and every norm of civic decency — and too few voters seemed to care.

Brooks sadly concludes that defenders of the great tradition of Western values are now down to “a few lonely voices.”

Count me one of them. I wrote The Case for Rational Optimism in 2009 when those Western values — and rationality — still seemed ascendant. Today fools prance triumphant around bonfires of reason. I’ll end with Schiller’s words: “Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.”

The march for science

April 24, 2017

Quiz #1 — Who made this statement about Saturday’s march for science: “Rigorous science depends not on ideology but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate”?

a) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b) Bill Gates
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Donald Trump

The answer is (d).

Quiz #2 — Did the statement come from

a) His lips
b) His Twitter account
c) His pen
d) A spokesperson

The answer is (d).

Science is not just another belief system or “faith.” Belief and knowledge are two different things. One can say “Joe believes the earth is flat” but not “Joe knows the earth is flat.”

How we know things is called epistemology. Scientific knowledge comes from a rigorous process of deduction from observation and evidence, always open to correction through better observation and evidence. Belief has nothing to do with it.

You can believe the earth is flat, but through science we know it isn’t. You can even do fake science, cherrypicking bits of information (and making up a lot) to deny evolution, but real science knows it’s true.

You can similarly torture facts to deny climate change and/or humanity’s role in it. Or to see harm outweighing benefits in vaccination, or Genetic Modification. Pick your ideology; believe what you like. But if you prefer reality, try real science.

Photo of me at the march by Therese Broderick

The Big Picture – a sound viewpoint on life and the world

April 12, 2017

Physicist Sean Carroll has written The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It sets out a philosophy or worldview which he labels “poetic naturalism.” Naturalism simply means no supernaturalism. “Poetic” says this is not prosaic. Instead this view of existence can fill us with awe and wonder. Human life arose by natural processes, but it’s nonetheless very special; almost miraculous.

The book’s 433 pages cover a lot of ground. But I will focus on just the penultimate chapter, a kind of summing up.

Carroll notes the popularity of the Ten Commandments – because people “like making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave.” Of course, the Ten Commandments were handed down by a deity who never existed, as part of an historical narrative that never happened. But Carroll is down on the idea of commandments altogether, and my libertarian soul shares that antipathy toward people being told what to do. Those who think we need a God to tell us stealing is wrong must have a pretty dim view of our species.

 

In lieu of commandments, Carroll offers what he calls Ten Considerations: things we (well, some of us) think are true, and that help us shape our approach to life and the universe we inhabit. These ten points amount to a philosophy of life. I was struck by how closely they match the ideas I myself have arrived at over a lifetime of contemplation. Much of this entails recognizing philosophical mistakes that bollix up a lot of folks’ thinking; it contradicts what many people think.

Here are the ten, with my own gloss:

1. Life isn’t forever. Carroll deems this a good thing. “Eternity is longer than you think.” Though couldn’t there be some middle ground between eternity and a mere century? But anyhow, death is final, this life on Earth is all we get. One must live with this crucial understanding; hiding from it is incompatible with living a truly meaningful life.

2. Desire is built into life. Some philosophies see desires as evil, impediments to happiness, that we should strive to banish. That’s wrong, because desires are what give life meaning and purpose, making us care about our lives. If you truly desired nothing, why care about living?

3. What matters is what matters to people. My version: what matters are the feelings of beings that experience feelings. Nothing else can matter. The existence of the universe itself could not matter, absent beings to whom it matters.

4. We can always do better. This reflects the fundamental humanist stance of optimism rather than pessimism about our species and its trajectory. Cynicism on this score is endemic. Carroll acknowledges “[i]t may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress” (his emphasis), but says “that’s exactly what we find in human history.” I myself have written a whole book making this argument. So has the slightly more famous Steven Pinker (citing mine).

5. It pays to listen. Because all human minds are fallible, one should be open to new information and insights. This has great relevance to today’s U.S. political environment, with confirmation bias running amok, and the nation divided between two camps living in alternate universes.

6. There is no natural way to be. Carroll says that our being part of nature makes it tempting to valorize “being natural.” This has indeed long been a major cultural and philosophical trope. But nature doesn’t in fact guide us in how to live. “Nature is kind of a mess,” often appalling, says Carroll. And nature doesn’t think. We should instead look to our reason for guidance.

7. It takes all kinds. “People are different, so they’re going to create different things. That’s a feature to be celebrated, not an annoyance to be eradicated.” It’s from that variety among people, especially in how they think, that dynamism, progress, and advancement come. A society of people all alike would be stagnant.

8. The universe is in our hands. We are not hapless playthings of an impersonal cosmos, nor subjects of “fate.” Instead our ability to think empowers us to alter our conditions of existence. As indeed we have spectacularly done.

9. We can do better than happiness. The “happiness” question is a perennial philosophical conundrum, exemplified by John Stuart Mill’s query, is it better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied? Carroll distinguishes between one’s state of being at a given moment and the journey one is on, and suggests focusing more on the latter. It’s the difference between fleeting feelings and the ongoing sense of a life well lived.

10. Reality guides us. Carroll recognizes that certain illusions can make one feel happier, but says, “very few people knowingly seek out false beliefs.” And while illusions can be pleasant, “the rewards of truth are enormously greater.” I have written about my “ideology of reality,” with facts shaping my beliefs rather than allowing beliefs to shape what I think are facts. It’s a matter of self-respect to hew to what is real and true, to live authentically. A life well lived cannot be grounded in falsity.

Class dismissed. Now go have fun.

The Gorsuch hearings: American exceptionalism

March 29, 2017

Amid all the dispiriting news from Washington lately, I listened to much of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ‘s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of course this too is a highly controversial political matter, playing out in a country that is politically divided to an extreme degree.

But I’m not writing about that; rather, of having been struck by the public-spirited, constructive, intelligent, responsible, and good-humored* tenor of the proceedings. Despite our febrile political climate, civility rather than partisan nastiness largely prevailed. This speaks volumes about the character of this country and its institutions. The positive feeling I got, listening to this, was a very welcome antidote to the last couple of months, in which the character of this country and its institutions have been desecrated by the president.

Leaving the politics aside (is it possible?), Judge Gorsuch seems to be an extremely capable, honest, thoughtful, responsible, intelligent, learned, articulate, reasonable, gracious, humble, decent human being (everything the president is not). That we still do have people like Gorsuch at the pinnacle of public life is a great testament to the character of the America I have so loved.

Senator Ted Cruz has not been one of my favorites. I’ve loathed him, and his political machinations. Yet listening to his colloquy with Judge Gorsuch, I was frankly surprised at how intelligent, erudite, and well-spoken even Cruz was. He was not ranting, nor even making political points so much as philosophical ones, and making them extremely well. One could see the merits that got Ted Cruz as far as he’s come. (Too bad presidential ambition can bring out the worst in people.)

And these earnest discussions, between senators and Gorsuch, of fine points of constitutional law, precedents, interpretations, and philosophies were a good reminder of the depth and richness of the institutional and moral foundations of the society we have built. As a student of history and of the world, I know too well how different things have been through most of the past, in most every country, and indeed in many if not most even today. In few times and places could such elevated public discourse be conceivable. This is America’s exceptionalism: a society, under rule of law, venerating rule of law, truly striving to provide the best possible environment for human beings to flourish. Uniquely, America’s core is not shared ethnicity but shared ideals. America is great because it is good.

I was particularly gratified by Judge Gorsuch’s words about the 14th Amendment, calling its broad guarantee of equality under law one of the most radical enactments in human history. I have written about the beauty of the 14th Amendment (and the shame of those Republicans who today advocate its repeal.)

Listening to these elevated hearings did remind me of the pride I have felt in my country and the values it represented. A feeling I have sorely missed. Yet I am cognizant that these proceedings took place on a sort of Mount Olympus. While down below, in less rarefied precincts, newly empowered fools prance around bonfires of truth, reason, and decency. How many Americans today have a real understanding and appreciation of the country’s foundational ideals? If they did, they would have no use for a creep like Trump. Without that understanding by the citizenry, no matter how fervent their flag waving, America’s greatness is ultimately doomed. God has not ordained it eternal. The Gorsuch hearings deepened my pain over the precious thing fools are witlessly destroying.

* Like Senator Sasse asking Gorsuch how he could go so long without peeing.

Paterson: the poem film

March 13, 2017

unknownWe recently saw two films in a row featuring Abbott and Costello.

Those were the names given the aliens in Arrival. And in Paterson we even get a little of “Who’s on first?” (a famous Abbott and Costello routine).

Adam Driver plays a bus driver, named Paterson, in Paterson, NJ. Yes, there’s a lot of twinning in the movie (including several sets of actual twins).images

The film is about poetry. The film is a poem.

Not a drama. It unfolds slowly and quietly. Indeed, the very absence of drama is a salient feature. It’s filled with events the viewer might expect but (spoiler alert) don’t happen:

• The marital blow-up

• The heavily foreshadowed dog-napping

unknown-1• The spurned lover’s bar-room blow-up (which does happen, but fizzles; the gun turns out to be a toy one).

• The cupcake disaster

• The bus crash. (Instead, a mere breakdown. Three people say to Paterson that the bus could have “blown up in a fireball.” But he knows otherwise.)

Paterson is a bus driver who’s a poet. Though very private about it, he takes poetry very seriously. Looming large is William Carlos Williams, another Patersonian, who wrote an epic poem titled Paterson. images-1Paterson reads that, and much other poetry, studies it. But not only poetry, apparently; I was amused to spot a copy of Infinite Jest on his bookshelf.

And he is a very good human being. The film takes pains to show that, while avoiding being saccharine. A rare and welcome departure from the glut of movies filled with human dysfunction and depravity.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts 'n' cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

My wife made me the brussels sprouts ‘n’ cheese pie featured in the film. I liked it better than Paterson did.

One disaster, of sorts, does befall Paterson, near the end. But he takes it with his well established philosophical equanimity, and it sets up completion of the film/poem’s arc in a very positive and satisfying way. What my wife calls a “squeeze” at a poem’s end.

Her being a poet made Paterson a must-see for us (her insights helped me with this review). She is also much attuned to eerie connections in life. I’ve mentioned the film’s twinning theme. Afterwards, we have dinner in a nearby restaurant. A couple seated next to us finishes and leaves. Shortly, another couple enters and takes their table. images-2And the new guy is the previous one’s identical twin brother.

Trumpism reveals religious right’s moral bankruptcy

February 28, 2017

unknownTheir support for Trump starkly proves the moral fraudulence of the religious right — those fundamentalist bible-thumpers with their in-your-face Christianity and moralistic preening.

My friend Rob Boston has written cogently about this in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. (I’ve previously reviewed his book.)

Eighty percent of evangelicals voted for Trump, which, Boston says, “demonstrates the paucity of moral values [they] so often claim to champion.” Because he is “everything the gospels say Jesus was not — crass, boorish, narcissistic and full of anger. Immature, vain, power-hungry . . . .”

A thrice-married, adulterous gambling casino magnate, whose comprehensive ignorance even extends to the proper way to quote Bible verses!

images-1But all that might be forgivable. What’s not is his absolute moral turpitude. One of the Ten Commandments (that the religious right is always shoving at us) condemns lying (“false witness”). It’s a key sin. And there could hardly be a bigger, more aggressive liar than Trump. His whole politics is based on lies and manipulation, “alternative facts,” and viciously attacking the press for reporting it. How can religious believers, if they take their faith seriously, condone such a liar?

And such a cheater. He built his fortune on screwing people — screwing investors and partners in his projects, screwing workers and contractors out of what he owed them, milking those properties for rich payments to himself and then declaring bankruptcy, leaving others to eat the debts. unknown-1Is this what Jesus taught? The Jesus who chased money-changers from the temple? (He even told followers to pay their taxes — “Render unto Caesar” — which Trump apparently violates too.)

And how can these religious folks prattle about ethical truths when they back the culprit of the massive Trump University fraud, scamming people’s life savings? Is this too what Jesus taught?

Did he not also tell us to “turn the other cheek?” Not “thou shalt tweet vindictive insults.”

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

The Gospel According to Saint Donald

I had actually hoped the “grab them by their pussy” tape — brazen boasting of sexual assault — might finally lift the scales from the eyes of Trump’s religious supporters. You know, the “family values” preachers. But no, they had fallen into a moral black hole.

They may answer that God works in mysterious ways; can choose an unlikely man to do his work. A lame, twisted rationalization. If God chose such a perfect monster as Trump, he must have a perverse sense of humor. Or else he’s testing his flock, to see who so misunderstands and betrays his message that they embrace this reptile. And then he’ll smite them.

They may also say it’s mere pragmatism; that Trump is wicked but will do good things. What naive fools. Placing power in evil hands does not usually work out well. But in any case it’s a deal with the Devil. They’re selling out their souls for worldly things. And as for those worldly policies they’re buying, I don’t see much Christianity in them anyway. Building a wall, breaking up families to deport people, and slamming our door on refugees fleeing violence and oppression does not exactly fit with the teachings of Jesus either.

Thus is the false mask of their “Christianity” ripped away. A bunch of hypocrites. And these are the people saying atheists can’t be moral without religious faith!

unknown-3To the contrary, that exemplifies what nonsense you get with belief in a false god. No wonder they’re so morally mixed up. One’s responses to the problems of life and the world cannot make sense (moral or otherwise) when grounded upon a fundamentally wrong assumption about the nature of reality.

A stroke of insight

February 25, 2017

It’s said that a key to happiness is gratitude for what you have. I am extremely grateful for my brain. Not that mine is so special; all human brains are. Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 book, My Stroke of Insight, is a good reminder of this.

Jill and her brain

Jill and her brain

Jill, 37, single, awoke one day with a bad pain in her head. She had trouble with normal morning routines. Something was very wrong. A congenital malformation of blood vessels in her brain had suddenly blown, flooding it with blood, which is toxic to neurons. In short, a stroke.

Jill was a neuroanatomist – a brain scientist. She, if anyone, was capable of understanding what was happening. And she knew well that with a stroke, time is of the essence; the faster treatment begins, the better the outcome. Yet her detailed chronicle of that morning is agonizing to read. It took her quite a long while to connect the dots and decide to get help, because the stroke was wreaking havoc with her mental functioning. And that worsened with every passing minute as the hemorrhaging continued.

Still, it seemed puzzling that she didn’t act right away, while she still had most of her wits. I was reminded of Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who got cancer; he too delayed getting help, rationalizing his severe symptoms as just due to the stresses of his intensive medical training. But he should have known better. When he finally got himself checked out, it was too late. He was 37 too, when he died.

imagesBy the time Jill at last grasped the situation, she was so incapacitated that taking action was becoming increasingly difficult. She sat immobilized in front of the phone. The part of her brain responsible for  numbers had been particularly hard hit. In intermittent moments of relative lucidity, she somehow managed to locate a card with her doctor’s number, and even to dial it. But then could not speak.

The doctor figured out who was calling. “Go to Mount Auburn Hospital,” she said. That was all. I was appalled. Jill couldn’t even talk.

Eventually, she also managed to dial her office. A colleague, alarmed, went to her apartment, and got her to a hospital, probably saving her life.

But here is a fascinating point. One reason for Jill’s delay is that she was loving what she was experiencing.

images-1Very generally, our two brain halves differ; the left is considered to be the rational side, housing our cognitive skills, while the right brain is the artistic, creative, intuitive side. Note that while normally, one cannot really separate the two, experiments cutting the connection between them (e.g., to control epilepsy) reveal that in some ways there really are two separate personalities inhabiting the one skull.

The stroke ravaged Jill’s left hemisphere – so, she says, it “no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquility of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly” like what Buddhists call nirvana. “I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.” (My emphasis)

unknown-2Buddhist meditation practice also aims for a kind of annihilation of the self, and this too Jill experienced. She even writes of losing proprioception – the brain’s monitoring of the body. The boundary between one’s body and what’s outside it is something second nature to us, but for Jill that melted away. She describes it as feeling fluid rather than solid (a feeling that didn’t go away for years). I was reminded of the Buddhist asking a hot dog vendor, “Make me one with everything.”

Proprioception is only one element of our sense of self. How the self is created is something we don’t yet truly understand. (For an excellent discussion of that problem, click here.) But as a brain scientist, Jill sheds some light by describing how she lost her self. unknown-3She talks of the brain constantly engaged in reminding you who you are, what your life is about, how you fit into the world, etc. – an unremitting effort like that of a performer keeping a row of plates spinning atop sticks. Jill’s brain stopped doing it, and her very selfhood dissolved away.

She recovered, but it was a tough eight-year slog. Much of her mind had to be rebuilt, reprogrammed – she was like an infant needing to learn the most basic things about life and the world. The hardest, she says, was reading: “I had no recollection that reading was something I had ever done before, and I thought the concept was ridiculous. Reading was such an abstract idea that I couldn’t believe anyone had ever thought of it, much less put forth the effort to figure out how to do it.”

images-2Her mother moved in to help her. Another challenge was the total loss of her number sense. When her mother asked her, “What’s one plus one?” Jill pondered before responding: “What’s a one?”

Motivating herself was hard. Nirvana still beckoned. Jill had to constantly consciously decide to exit from the “enticing and wonderful” right hemisphere “la-la land” of “divine bliss,” and engage her recovering analytical left mind. And she says she wondered how much of her “newly found right hemisphere consciousness, set of values, and resultant personality” would have to be sacrificed in order to recover her left-brain skills. In fact, she now recognized aspects of her past personality – egotism, argumentativeness, meanness, and various hang-ups – that she’d rather leave behind.

images-3And the way she saw things now, those characteristics reflected her left brain having exercised dominance over the right brain; but that dominance was not beyond her control. She says her stroke revealed that it was actually up to her to decide the relationship between the two sides of her brain in shaping her personality. This may be easier said than done, but Jill seems to feel she has done it, and that it is possible for anyone to do it.

The key to such control, she says, is to recognize when she’s hooked into a negative thought loop. She lets it run for about 90 seconds, then consciously asks her brain to knock it off. This must be done with intensity, Jill says, and she tries to get her brain onto different, better thoughts. (I believe I myself do a lot of what Jill prescribes; but click here for a counter-story.)

All this is an ultimate argument for free will; and Jill does provide some powerful evidence for it.

I will end with this quote from the book: “our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments. unknown-4We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere. Perhaps just a little in the beginning, but the longer I stay focused on looking for red, then before you know it, I will see red everywhere.”

This is highly relevant to our political lives.

Movie Review: “Arrival”

February 5, 2017

The film starts with a reverie about memory: how it doesn’t work the way we think.* The protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), is given what appears to be a standard type of back-story: memories of raising her daughter, after a marital split; and the daughter’s early death. However, these memories are, indeed, not what they seem; and this eventually turns out to be key to the whole film.

images-3Soon come the aliens: 12 giant sleek spaceships landing mysteriously across the globe. Ours is in Montana. Louise is a hotshot linguist, swooped up by the military to crack the language barrier and learn why they’re here. Right away, I’m thinking: these aliens obviously have mega-advanced technology; they come seemingly wanting to communicate; but with no means for doing so? Really? However, one must suspend disbelief and accept the story’s premise.

Louise and some guys are taken inside the alien ship, where they’re subjected to the usual proctology examinations.

unknownNo, just kidding. Actually, they meet Abbott and Costello.

Those are the names they give their two alien interlocutors. Their language sounds something like whale talk. The aliens look like something aquatic too. Their written language, we’re told, does not correlate with the sounds. images-2They write by squirting stuff that resolves into circles with woolly protrusions, like smoke signals. Soon Louise has compiled a dictionary and is communicating in their own language. I felt like I missed a scene, showing just how she achieved this breakthrough.

Well, Louise is smart; but, typical for such movies, most other humans are idiots. I thought I was back in one of those 1950s space operas. After a month of nothing ostensibly happening (a month!), we see a Limbaugh-type loudmouth ranting that these aliens pose a great danger and should be attacked. (I think a lot of people would have gone a lot more haywire a lot sooner.) Then China gives the aliens a threatening ultimatum. Then people around the world trying to talk to all the ships idiotically cut off communication with each other. images-1And some trigger-happy American soldiers do attack, with the consequences you might expect. Haven’t any of these fools ever seen any of those old sci-fi movies? Don’t they know the aliens, or monsters, or whatever, are never vulnerable to our puny retro weapons?

Long story short, it won’t surprise you to learn that Louise saves the world. More: the message she finally gets from the aliens transforms all of life as we know it. She also gets the guy — but not for keeps it would seem. To explain all this would be a spoiler. But here’s a hint: it has to do with the very fabric of time itself. Her memories were not memories.

Maybe I’ve made this sound like a silly movie. It’s not. It is beautifully done, and the story arc is altogether subtle, surprising, and thought-provoking. Whether it makes coherent sense is beside the point.

*I have written about this fascinating topic — click here.