Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Could a machine ever feel emotion? – David Gelernter

April 15, 2016

UnknownI recently heard a talk by Yale Professor David Gelernter, notable guru of computer science and artificial intelligence.* His new book is The Tides of Mind. That’s his metaphor for human consciousness cycling between varying states: early in the day we’re full of energy, seeing the world differently from later, when attention shifts from the external to the internal realm, and insistence of memory crowds out use of reason. After reaching a mid-afternoon low point, one cycles back upward somewhat before cycling back down again toward sleep. (I’ve always felt sharpest, doing my best work, in the morning; I’m drafting this at 5 AM in an airport; in mid-afternoon I’m soporific.)

Gelernter spoke of his project to emulate these workings of the mind in a computer program. He said the spectrum’s “top edge,” where rationality predominates, is easiest to model; it gets harder lower down, where we become less like calculating machines and more emotive. And Gelernter said – categorically – that no artificial system would ever be able to feel like a human feels.

Unknown-1This I challenged in the question period, suggesting that everything a human mind does must emerge out of neurons’ information processing – admittedly a massively complex system – but if such a system could be mimicked artificially, couldn’t all its effects, including consciousness and emotion, arise therein? I referenced the movie Her.

 Gelernter replied at great length. He said that some man-made systems already approach that degree of complexity (actually, I doubt this), but nobody imagines they’re conscious. He quoted Paul Ziff that a computer can do nothing that’s not a performance – a simulation of mind functioning, not the real thing.

Unknown-5Making notes, I wrote the words “Chinese Room” before Gelernter spoke them. This refers to John Searle’s famous thought experiment: a person in a room, using a set of rules, can respond to incoming messages in Chinese, thus appearing to understand Chinese, without actually understanding Chinese. Likewise a computer, using programmed rules, could appear to converse and understand, without actually understanding.

images-1Gelernter contrasted the view of “computationalists” like Daniel Dennett who – consistent with my question – regard the mind as basically akin to a computer – the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software. Gelernter acknowledged this is a majority view. It says that while a single neuron can do nothing, nor can a thousand, when a brain has trillions of interconnections, mind emerges. But this Gelernter dismissed, analogizing that a single grain of sand can do nothing, but a trillion can’t either.

images-2Gelernter asserted that computationalists actually have no evidence for their stance, and it boils down to being an axiom – an assumption, like Euclid’s axiom that parallel lines never meet (though never meeting is the definition of parallel lines, which is something different).

I found none of this persuasive. Someone later asked me what’s the antithesis of “computationalism.” I said “magicalism.” Because Gelernter seemed to posit something magical that creates mind, above and beyond mechanistic neural processing. Unknown-3This argument has been going on for centuries. But it’s really Gelernterists who engage in axioms – that is, assuming something must be true, albeit unprovable. And I call the opposing view materialism – that all phenomena must be explicable rationally – and the mind must arise from what neurons physically do – because there is no other possibility. I do not believe in magic.

Talking with Gelernter afterward, he offered a somewhat better argument – that to get a mind from neurons, you need, well, neurons. That their specific characteristics, with all their chemistry, are indispensable, and their effects could not be reproduced in a system made, say, of plastic. He analogized neurons to the steel girders holding up the building – thanks to steel’s particular characteristics – and girders made of something else, like potato chips, wouldn’t do.Unknown-4

But I still wasn’t persuaded. Gelernter had said, again, that computer programs can only simulate human mind phenomena; for example, a program that “learns” is simulating learning but not actually learning as a human does. I think that’s incorrect – and exemplifies Gelernter’s error. What does “learning” mean? Incorporating new information to change the response to new situations – becoming smarter from experience. Computer programs now do exactly this.

Neuronal functioning is very special and sophisticated, and would be very hard to truly reproduce in a system not made from actual neurons. But not impossible, because it’s not magical. I still see no reason, in principle, why an artificial system could not someday achieve the kind of complex information processing that human brains do, which gives rise to consciousness, a sense of self, and feelings.**

Those who’ve said something is impossible have almost always proven wrong. And Arthur C. Clarke said any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

* In 1993 he survived an attack by the Unabomber, whose brother, David Kaczynski, has been to my house (we had an interesting discussion about spirituality) – my three degrees of separation to Gelernter.

** See my famous article in The Humanist magazine: The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement.


Grannies killed by college exams

January 24, 2016

imagesIt’s true. College exams are deadly for students’ grandmothers. A study determined that granny death rates spike tenfold before a midterm, and nineteen times before a final exam. One theory is that grannies’ health is undermined by anxiety and stress when their grandchildren face exams. Indeed, the study found that failing students are fifty times likelier to lose a grandmother in the run-up to an exam, compared to non-failing students.

This is reported in Dan Ariely’s book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke.

images-3But seriously, what’s really going on is that students commonly make up grandmother deaths as a pretext for requesting exam postponements. Shocking.

The book’s main theme is that we all lie and cheat. But that doesn’t make us sociopaths. In fact, we tend to lie and cheat only so much that we can still look in the mirror and see an honest ethical person. We sometimes lie to ourselves.

UnknownAriely invokes numerous laboratory experiments. In a typical case, test subjects are asked to solve a set of puzzles within a time limit, earning a payment for each one solved. But on an honor system: they self-report their performance. Most fudge it upward, but only by a little.

images-1I found much of this suspiciously artificial and unlike real life. In another example, people were asked to gauge whether more dots appeared to the right or left of a line. Sometimes it was obvious, sometimes not. But when told they’d be paid substantially more for saying “right” than “left,” the answers skewed rightward. This Ariely called dishonesty. I disagree. If told I’d be paid more simply for saying “right” rather than “left,” I’d shrug and say “right” every time. That’s just a rational response to the rules.

Perhaps I’m quibbling. But most of Ariely’s lab tests entailed honesty along a gradient, falling in shades of gray. Whereas in everyday life ethical questions are often either-or. For instance, in my coin business, I normally send out orders before payment. Perhaps if, Ariely lab style, customers calculated their own bills, there might be some fudging. But when it’s just paying versus not paying, over 99% pay. Some even correct errors made in their favor.

This bespeaks honesty of a high order. Maybe my customers are not a representative cross-section, but I don’t think collectively they’re that unusual. Nor is my business. Most of the world’s commerce proceeds on a basis of mutual trust between trading partners; it’s our default assumption. Unknown-1I once got an e-mail from a stranger in Africa selling coins. I gave him a substantial order. He didn’t know me, but assumed that an American businessperson would likely pay. And I did pay him after receiving the package. That’s how it works.

This basic level of trust is a fundamental underpinning of civilization. Of course we know we must watch out for violators; we lock our doors. Yet still you assume the average person whose paths you cross won’t bash your head in and grab your stuff. Or that a store won’t sell you defective goods. And so forth. Otherwise civilization could not function.

A recent poll found a significant decline in the percentage agreeing that most people are trustworthy. There’s no evidence we’ve actually become less trustworthy – only that we think people have. images-2Ariely seems to, pointing to scandals like Enron. But were businesses more ethical in bygone times? I doubt it; indeed, it’s harder to get away with scams in today’s interconnected media world of constant scrutiny and exposure. Yet that parade of exposures – Volkswagen is a recent example – does make people believe misfeasance has become rampant, compared to a romanticized past. I also suspect that decreased face-to-face personal interactions undermines our acculturation to the idea that people are generally trustworthy. But if that makes us less trusting, the decline in perceived trustworthiness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What do we live for?

January 3, 2016

“God, make me chaste – but not yet.”



That was Saint Augustine, famously wrestling between his worldly desires and desire for holiness. He’s profiled in David Brooks’s book, The Road to Character.

Brooks’s theme is that a truly good life requires controlling, even sacrificing, personal desires — but it’s an advantageous trade-off. This is what Augustine struggled over. He knew his pursuit of worldly success, pleasures, sex, wasn’t making him happy. But could he change?

Brooks profiles people he feels did resolve the dilemma and hence did live good lives.



George Marshall, for example, a model of soldierly devotion to duty and country. In WWII, Marshall ached to lead the D-Day invasion, and believed he’d earned the prize. But he forbade himself from ever putting personal desires first, and when FDR asked him point blank if he wanted it, Marshall could not utter the word “yes.” So it went to Eisenhower.

Eisenhower too is profiled in the book, along with Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, George Eliot, Frances Perkins, and Samuel Johnson; all certainly admirable characters. Each made sacrifices for the sake of a higher good, exercising self-control over personal impulses which might have entailed transient rewards but which conflicted with larger goals. The key is understanding what is really important, and the strength of will to put that first.

This again was Augustine’s struggle. But, unlike the others profiled, his greater good was not to achieve something in the human realm. While Ike and Marshall served their country, Randolph the cause of equality, Day and Perkins the downtrodden, etc., for Augustine it was God. It was to get right with God that Augustine finally summoned the will to reorder his life.

The others were serving something real; Augustine, something imaginary. So what is the moral lesson there? Brooks’s chapter on Augustine is all theological mumbo-jumbo, convoluted and false; indeed, absurd. You cannot live a truly meaningful life if the whole thing is grounded in delusion. Only when you overcome false ideas about existence, and grapple with the world as it really is, can you live a life of authentic meaning and virtue.

Unknown-4In concluding his chapter on Augustine, Brooks speaks of “faith against pure rationalism.” Mark Twain defined faith as believing what you know ain’t so. My rationalism isn’t “pure,” since humans are imperfect. But we must try.

Brooks talks of a broad cultural shift from an ethos of “moral realism,” controlling the self in service to some larger good (a la Marshall) to one of self-actualization, “be all you can be,” or condensed to “the big Me.” imagesAnd like others who put things in such terms, Brooks is censorious, albeit mildly; he thinks the shift has gone too far, and we’re losing a deeper kind of virtue.

Here’s my take. For most of human history, conditions of life were unforgivingly harsh, such that Brooksian “moral realism” was not just a virtue but a necessity. Of course selfishness and greed always operated too, yet survival required individuals to conform to societal strictures. That’s what has changed. No longer will a little free-spirited self-indulgence throw us back to living in caves. Modern advanced societies have at last mastered the problem of subsistence, freeing us to seek personal fulfillment in whatever ways feel nourishing to us, without having to be George Marshall about it.

Most of us still do try to serve others, and a larger good. But it’s not the only way to live meaningfully. In a utilitarian calculus of increasing the world’s sum total of human happiness, seeing to your own needs and desires is at least equal in importance to worrying about someone else’s. Indeed, you have a special duty to yourself, and you are the one person best positioned to know what’s good for you.

As Garrison Keillor has said, if one’s purpose in life is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others?

UnknownIn his summing up, Brooks’s point number one is: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” But the explanatory paragraph actually says nothing of God, it’s about moral ambition. If we live for such “holiness,” why so? Ultimately it’s always about personal fulfillment – doing that which makes us feel good. The ascetic starving himself in a cave does it because, on a level most important to him, the suffering makes him feel good about himself. “Happiness” is a suitable word for this concept. It is what everyone lives for.

The sense of grievance: a personal lesson

December 30, 2015

UnknownOne factor motivating Islamic radicals is a deep sense of grievance. A feeling that Muslims are victims of injustice, disrespected, a grievance crying out for expression and expiation. Humans have a pre-installed injustice detector (mine is set on “high”). These are powerful feelings.

imagesWe traveled as usual to my wife’s family for the holiday. My daughter flew in from Jordan. On Christmas eve I got left at the hotel, waiting for my wife to fetch me around 2 PM. Well, two came, then three, and four, and the next one. I could have called her but somehow got it in my head that she should call me. So instead I chose to wait and nurture a grievance, feeling disrespected. This grew to prodigious proportions by the time she arrived at 5:20.

Turned out she’d had a very rough day, chauffeuring people through terrible traffic. Oh, and by the way – the previous day had been her mother’s funeral. But none of that trumped my sense of grievance. Unknown-1I expected my wife to fall on her knees in contrition. When instead she pointed out what I should have done, my umbrage multiplied.

I think of myself as cool, rational, reasonable. And while I fumed, I did carefully analyze whether my intense feelings were truly justified. Yup, they were, I concluded.

But my truculence was making my beloved wife very upset, and finally, remorse for that overcame my sense of grievance, fortunately before it could ruin Christmas. And once the boil was thusly lanced, in the cold light of reason I could see how unreasonable and petty I had been. images-1Indeed, I was kind of shocked at how such a demon of fierce feeling had seized control of my brain. While in its grip, no mitigating factor mattered.

It made me think of Muslims and Palestinians and the sense of grievance. And of the late Edward Said, whose all-encompassing “blame the West” perspective on the Middle East remains influential. I could grasp in a new, personal way just how powerful such emotions can be – how impervious to reason – and to any other considerations, least of all consideration for the other side. Without dismissing Muslim and Palestinian grievances, there is indeed a lot to be said on the other side; and the grievance mindset can betray one’s own best interests. But when that demon gets hold of you – as it did me, briefly at least – it won’t listen to reason. This is how you get suicide bombers.

Unknown-2Well, my wife likes to chide my supposed belief in rationality, and this episode certainly scored one for her. But of course I don’t believe humans are always rational. Rather, it’s that we are capable of rationality (as I was, in the end). And (go ahead, cynics, have fun scoffing) I believe we are getting better at being rational — and thusly making a better world.

New evidence on religion and morality

December 26, 2015

images-3Without God, everything is permitted, said Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s novel. Atheists are hit with this constantly: that people are basically bad and need religion to be good. That despite all the undeniable evil religion has inspired, still we’d be even worse off without it.

At a public event a preacher came up to my humanist group’s table, loudly making the Karamazov argument. “If there were no God,” he was asked, “would you steal, rape, and murder?” He said yes. I know many atheists, but no rapists or murderers.

images-2That’s because morality was actually bred in the bone by evolution, long before religion: because tribes whose people treated each other right survived and reproduced better than dog-eat-dog groups. Further, our power of reason tells us which is the better way to live.

But comes now a scientific experiment testing Karamazov’s thesis – performed by University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety, published in Current Biology. Children aged 5-12 were shown a collection of 30 attractive stickers and allowed to choose and keep ten. images-4Afterwards, each was told the other children wouldn’t be getting any – so would they share with a random classmate?

Guess what? Children from non-believing families were no less generous than from religious ones. In fact, they were more generous: giving away an average of 4.1 stickers, compared to 3.3 for Christian children and 3.2 for Muslims.

Case closed? One might quibble whether this was a true morality test; there was no moral obligation to share stickers. Yet clearly the nonbeliever children acted more, well, Christian than the Christians.

images-5The study also found that rich kids were more generous than poor ones; and it wasn’t down to immaturity, as the generosity rose with children’s ages. Meantime, the religious parents rated their children as more sensitive to injustice than did the nonbelieving parents. One might conclude that when it comes to altruism, (on average) the religious talk the talk while nonbelievers walk the walk.

In reporting on this, The Economist wondered what it is about religious teachings that actually makes things worse. images-6Maybe it’s a kind of moral smugness or hubris: if convinced of your god-given righteousness, then your conduct (whatever it actually is) must be okay. It’s an automatic pass. Whereas nonbelievers have more cause to doubt and question themselves. A believer with a selfish impulse may convince himself it’s God’s will; a nonbeliever can’t fob it off on God.

Religionists also say fear of God keeps them in line. Atheists consider that an ignoble basis for virtue; better to do right because it is right than out of fear. That’s a more positive way to live.

There’s also a fundamental incoherence in the idea that morality comes from God. If so, where does he get it from? As Socrates asked, is something holy because the gods love it, or do they love it because it’s holy? imagesIn other words, is something moral because God says so, or does he say so because it is moral? If the former, it’s just arbitrary; and if the latter, then God is merely telling us what our reasoning minds should be able to figure out for ourselves.


What do Trump supporters and ISIS recruits have in common?

December 19, 2015

UnknownNo, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.

imagesRadical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.

images-1All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).

Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.

images-2It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.

Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.

Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.

Unknown-2This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?

Happy Hanukkah – a (snake) oil story

December 5, 2015

images-4Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday until modern times, when it was puffed up mainly so Jewish children wouldn’t feel bad while their goy friends celebrate Christmas (and get gifts).

images-6Hanukkah centers upon the Maccabees, a bunch of religious fanatics who won what was at least partly a civil war against more moderate Jews backed by the Seleukid Empire. The victorious Maccabees imposed their fierce religion on the country, including forced conversions. Not a story I personally find inspiring.

Nor do I believe in miracles. To my mind, every event has a naturalistic explanation; if it doesn’t, it presumably didn’t happen. The supposed Hanukkah miracle was that when the Maccabees seized the temple, they found only one night’s oil supply for the sacred lamp, but it burned for eight nights.

images-7This you call a miracle? I say lame-o. Somebody was pulling our legs here. Maybe they simply misjudged the amount of oil. Or were ahead of their time with energy conservation. And besides, you’re telling me those Maccabees, controlling the country, couldn’t scrounge up a little more oil for one measly lamp?

Reminds me of the story of the guy whose neighbor boasts insufferably about his gas mileage. So to mess with him, the guy sneaks gas into the neighbor’s tank at night, and now he’s bragging of truly unbelievable mileage. Until the guy reverses the process and starts siphoning gas out at night!

Maybe some prankster was similarly messing with the temple lamp’s oil, to make fools of the Maccabees.

images-3Nevertheless — I sincerely wish all my readers a happy and healthy Hanukkah. L’chaim!

God and Man in Paris

November 16, 2015

We all must die.

imagesBut we don’t let that stop us enjoying life. Indeed, it makes it all the more precious. Those Parisians were out enjoying life – at restaurants, bars, concert halls, and taking pleasure in the company of others.

It is this that was targeted.

Not infrastructure, not government, not military, not cultural icons – no, they targeted just human beings in the act of joyful living. They attacked the very essence of living itself.

Ostensibly they did it for God. The true motivations are a vipers’ nest of psychopathology. But at its core this is anti-humanism: the antithesis between what makes life worth living and a bleak mentality that reviles it.

But it’s the essence of religion to embody seemingly transcendent ideas which, throughout history, have enflamed people to torture themselves (and others) in service thereto; ranging from Indian mystics sticking pins through their bodies, to Shakers abjuring sex and Russian Skoptsy going one better with castration, and now Muslim radicals aspiring to some sort of perverted purification through violence, cruelty, and the self-destruction of suicide bombing.

UnknownEnough. There is no god. Just us human beings, trying to make the best of our limited lives and to love one another.

(Acknowledgment: this was inspired by a posting from the British Humanist Association.)

What Is “Socialism?”

October 20, 2015

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.

Being Mortal

October 15, 2015

imagesHow would you like to spend your last days in a nursing home? In a tiny cubicle with no privacy, no autonomy, no possessions, everything gone that made life worth living, surrounded by people who . . . well, you know.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, addresses such end-of-life issues. It’s very relevant for me. My mother-in-law, 86, was in “assisted living” but a recent series of falls messed her up. UnknownGawande notes that the gravest health threat for the elderly is simply falling. My mother, 94, continues living in her own home, fortunately able to afford a part-time nurse/caregiver. I’m 68.

At one point Gawande notes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivations, crowned by mastery of knowledge and skills, gaining reward for achievement, and “self-actualization.” But he observed that aging people tend to narrow their concerns, concentrating more on family and friends. Why the change? Gawande acknowledged several theories – but I instantly knew the answer, because even while at 68 I remain very on-the-go, my perspective on life has changed.

Unknown-1In my 30s I was all Maslow, with the rest of my life stretching ahead almost limitlessly, or so it felt. Now I’m very conscious of having used up most of it. Now I know that not even some freak of fortune will resurrect my youthful dreams of literary or political triumph. To so many things now I react with a zen-like mantra: “it just doesn’t really matter.” Because when I’m gone, nothing will matter at all to me. And the time interval between now and then seems a mere detail.

So the pleasures of the moment are more important than Maslowian self-actualization. How many more cookies will I get to eat? images-1The thought makes each one more to be savored. How many more times will I get to jump in a pool? Or make love?

One thing that struck me – as it did Gawande – is the degree to which an exaggerated concern over safety dominates and constrains the circumstances in which elderly people exist. (I didn’t say “live” because, as Gawande shows, for too many it really isn’t living). And the safety concern is not so much on the part of the elderly themselves, as it is their children and caregivers (and of course the latter have a big concern to avoid blame for an adverse outcome).

The mentioned change of perspective is relevant. It’s tragic to die with “your whole life ahead of you.” At ninety, not so much. The concerns are different. But putting oldsters in a safe environment often means restricting what they can eat, what they can do, what activities they’re permitted, etc. They are made prisoners of safety. Gawande says they’re given “a life designed to be safe but empty of everything they care about.”

imagesWe all want to be “safe.” But what does that really mean? Zero risk? Some people today actually seem to think so, embracing a “precautionary principle” on issues like fracking that rule out anything not proven riskless – as if anything in life ever could be. But there is a constant trade-off between safety and other important concerns. A true “precautionary principle” would not allow us, for example, to drive cars. But we reckon that a trip is worth the risk, and that’s rational. After all, no matter how safe you try to be, life always entails an irreducible risk factor. images-2You can eschew cars but still get hit by one crossing the street. And for all your safety efforts, your risk of dying will still be not zero but, actually, 100%.

That perspective seems missing from eldercare. As though the safety obsession will keep folks from dying. When in fact, at best, it will only keep them alive for what is really a relatively short time. I daresay many elderly people would accept a small risk of dying a little sooner in exchange for more freedom and autonomy – more quality of life – while it lasts. There’s not much value in a longer life if it’s “lived” as described in my opening paragraph.

After all, the point of living is not just to not die. It certainly isn’t to not die tomorrow rather than the day after.


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