Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

On to Mars

November 21, 2016

unknownI was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”

We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. images-1But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.

Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.

Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.

But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.

unknown-1The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.

Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)

Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.

images-2The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.

unknown-2But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.


Rational optimist – or pessimist?

November 12, 2016

On Wednesday morning I changed this blog’s title from “The Rational Optimist” to “The Rational Pessimist.”

unknown-1Psychology research shows that optimism-versus-pessimism, happiness-versus-unhappiness, is largely inborn, and largely impervious to life’s vicissitudes. That we have a set-point of temperament, to which one’s mood reverts, after the immediate impact of some positive or negative event dissipates. I have been blessed with a setting at the far end of the range. It was no coincidence that I literally wrote the book on optimism.

Tuesday night was the worst thing ever in my life. Worse than 9/11. Worse even than when my longtime girlfriend left me. Someone has said that “Never Trump” Republicans (like me) are now the loneliest people in the world. I have agonized about changing my enrollment; but the Democrats will likely continue their leftward march. images-1I’m the man without a party; I feel like the man without a country.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a local gathering (celebrating an election upset 50 years earlier). I wore black. However, as I ran toward the entrance, in the rain, I realized I was already actually feeling cheerful – confirming all that set-point psychology research! (A nod here to my wife and marriage, which have been my rock.)

But my book and blog referenced rational optimism – not a Pollyanna attitude with rose-colored glasses. Another strong personality trait of mine is realism. I see no benefit in deluding myself about things I wish were true. Thus I’ve also written of my “ideology of reality.”

One of the realities I accept is that the cosmos is purposeless, undirected, and our existence is an evolutionary accident. But that means it’s entirely up to us to make the best of our situation; and, unlike every other creature that ever existed, we have great tools for it. Mainly, our incredibly powerful brains. And, using those tools, we have actually done fantastically at making for ourselves lives worth living. unknown-2Especially in modern times, since the Enlightenment, humanity has achieved incredible progress. (Once again I reference Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) This is the heart of my rational optimism.

In that march of progress, building the means for people to live good lives, one of our greatest creations has been the United States of America.

But the realist in me knows that we are not perfect beings, and for all the reasoning power of our brains, we are subject to rampaging emotions and irrationality. What people build people can also destroy – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unwittingly. America is not immune. No God protects her from human folly.

unknownAn enterprise like America can only be sustained if the people in it actually understand what it’s all about. Tuesday showed that America – well, half at least – has lost the thread. It’s freedom and democracy, yes, but also rule of law; pluralism; human dignity; tolerance; openness; generosity; fair play; civility; responsibility; community spirit; and, not least, devotion to truth and reason. What Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” (inspiring Pinker’s title).

Those establishment “elites” whom Trump voters so resent have upheld those values quite well, indeed kept up the momentum of progress (for example with gay marriage). But meantime, lamentably, the rest of America has undergone a long process of civic decline – decline in genuine devotion to its ideals and values, because too few people are educated and acculturated nowadays in what those precepts mean. Too many have reduced Americanism to flag waving and snarling empty slogans.

There are a lot of reasons, a lot of culprits, it’s not a simple story, and a lot of it is actually fallout from some aspects of our progress (like greater racial equality) – but the bottom line is that too few Americans still understand what actually made America great. unknown-4This is why the “Make America Great Again” slogan was so painfully ironic. I wish we could make America great again – like it was before Tuesday.

We heard much talk of voters expressing their pain. I won’t belittle what anyone feels; but surely conditions of life in today’s America are not historically bad. Things in the Depression, for example, were much, much worse. However, voters in the Depression did not fall for such a blatant, un-American demagogue. Nor would have tolerated a candidate with such grotesque defects of character.* That all this was accepted in 2016 bespeaks a sad corrosion of America’s character.

This is why I am so heartbroken. Hearing the national anthem has always teared me up. Now it will be for what’s been lost.

And yet there may be hope, because perhaps strangely, it is older people who most embody the decline, while younger people – more shaped by the trends of modernity I mentioned – seem to better embrace those Enlightenment civic values their elders have forgotten. unknown-5It’s true too of the new arrivals – that’s why I so welcome immigration – people come here because they do crave America’s true meaning, and their coming is a national renewal.

Well, our new first lady is an immigrant.** That’s one thing at least to celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” images-2Seeing that great trend of history made me an optimist. But it’s never a smooth curve, and America has just bent sharply the other way. But I’m not ready to believe humanity’s whole arc has changed. Nor am I ready to give up on what America used to stand for. I have tried to promote those values on this blog. Now, I will have to work harder at it.

I have restored this blog’s title.

* Please, stuff the spluttering about Clinton. There’s no comparison. Indeed, the very fact that so many failed to see this shows how messed up the country has become.

** Though not the first; that was Louisa Adams. However, also ironically, the first family will include its first Jew.

David Gelernter and the ideology trap

October 19, 2016

unknownDavid Gelernter is a well-known computer scientist, whose talk I wrote about previously. Afterwards, I wanted to speak with him, but didn’t want to buy the new book he was promoting. So instead I bought a previous one, America-Lite, which looked more fun.

America-Lite actually argues a serious point, but is aptly titled, being, well, lite. This is no weighty Closing of the American Mind (which he mentions). Indeed, given my general sympathy with much of what it says, I found the book annoyingly supercilious and off-putting.



It concerns America’s cultural revolution since the 1960s. Gelernter basically doesn’t like it. He attributes it to two related phenomena. First, “the Great Reform” in higher education. Key here was the breakdown of old efforts to limit Jews on campuses, which changed their WASP culture, as mainly social institutions, to mainly intellectual ones. And shoved them leftward. Meantime, secondly, there emerged “Imperial Academia” – an enlarged influence of the university world upon the broader American culture. This was largely down to sheer heft – a much bigger percentage of today’s population has been through higher education than in past epochs.

unknown-2Gelernter says the old WASP elite has thus been replaced by post-religious globalist intellectuals – “PORGIs” – who now run the country. Not everyone in academia buys this intellectual stance, but its influence is leveraged by the fact that non-subscribers care much less about politics and just go along with the flow, taking on board the indoctrination, while nonconforming viewpoints are cudgeled into silence and delegitimized by the PORGIs’ political correctness policing.

unknown-3The result is what Gelernter relentlessly labels PORGI Airheads (always with a capital A) – people full of received wisdom but empty of factual knowledge. Indeed, he sees much of PORGI-ism as contrary to fact, but uninterested in learning as much. After all, it’s far easier to reach judgments from preconceived ideas than from factual analysis.

For Gelernter, President Obama exemplifies the PORGI Airhead. He denies Obama is an ideologue – saying the President’s thinking doesn’t even rise to that level, being instead a zombie-like slavishness to the PORGI theories about the world that, like so many other students of his era, Obama had installed in his brain while at Columbia and Harvard.

I’m no Obama fan; but willing to give the Devil his due. Gelernter’s book itself epitomizes a lamentable trend in American political discourse: the notion that our side thinks and the other does not. Indeed, the left is inordinately fond of this gambit too, always casting itself as coolly rational whereas the right is a bunch of unthinking automatons. Al Gore even wrote a book titled Assault on Reason with that exact theme.

unknownNo. You may disagree with how the other guy thinks. But don’t imagine that you are thinking while he is not – a grossly arrogant self-delusion. While I am certain anti-evolutionists are wrong, I never forget they are equally certain I am wrong.

That said, it is true most people seem to view the world through pre-shaped lenses of bias. I have written about trying to base my beliefs upon what I see to be facts – my “ideology of reality” – whereas most people do it the other way around, letting their beliefs dictate what they see as facts.

Gelernter is right that many have beliefs about the world because those beliefs fit ideas they like, not because they’re actually factually true. A perfect example is GM food. It must be bad, on principle, a certain mindset holds; so the science must support that view. The Albany Times-Union recently editorialized that the issue remains open and some scientists see dangers. False! The newspaper commits exactly the sin for which it repeatedly pillories climate change deniers. They too see that issue as scientifically unsettled – because that fits their preferred picture.

unknown-4And like small children, bedazzled by shiny objects, the left in particular is bedazzled by labels – like “socialist.” It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, convincing them of its beauty – like Venezuela’s vile regime, or Mugabe’s.

In all these cases, the idea trumps the reality. The left sees itself as holding lofty ideals. They’ll burble on about inequality and the 1% making people poor – which is factually untrue – while failing to notice how “socialist” regimes do make people poor. Or how their prejudice against GM food, factually baseless, condemns millions of poor people to malnutrition and starvation.

They just think differently than me.

Meantime, Gelernter’s whole shtick about “Airheads” seeing the world through a veil of theory uncontaminated by facts was hard to take seriously – when one perspective whose waning he laments is the religious one. Gelernter, an observant Jew, doesn’t see how people can figure out moral issues without religion. unknown-5Well, I can. In fact, atheists without religion’s prepackaged answers are forced to think that much harder about moral issues. And if ever there was a belief system impervious to factual realities, surely it’s religious faith!

Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

Book groups and “the good old days”

October 8, 2016

imagesI’m in two book groups. One, for about 25 years, originated among PSC co-workers. (The story goes that it began with two guys expecting two gals at a restaurant; the gals didn’t show; but the book was discussed anyway, and it grew from there). We meet monthly, reading serious fiction and non-fiction; talk about the book for an hour or more amid appetizers; then have dinner. It’s very convivial. And filling.

The other one is the Capital District Humanist Society’s. We read non-fiction books and discuss them intensively, page by page, for two hours, twice a month. We’ve been known to take a year on one book. No food.

unknownThe PSC group in particular has led me into very rewarding books I’d otherwise have missed. Though not all our selections have been winners. We often look back with bemusement on clunkers like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (which I still think was highly interesting).

imagesAnd we seem to have a thing for “lifeboat” books: Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, The Life of Pi, Ahab’s Wife, Dead Wake, etc. Not to mention Three Men in a Boat.

Recently we read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations, and before that, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, historical novels about the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen and King David respectively. Both made me really glad to live in modernity. If you doubt progress, read these books.

It’s natural to wonder how I’d have behaved in those past times. Hopefully not like the typical men portrayed. But you can’t graft modern sensibility, even hypothetically, onto long-ago people. Folks acted as they did because that was their world. Though each book did include at least one man we’d call good, they were truly exceptions.

Hildegard lived in 1100’s Germany. At age eight she was sent to accompany 14-year-old Jutta as monastery “anchorites.” I didn’t know what that meant. Neither did little Hildegard. But on the trip, her blood froze when someone used the words “walled in.”

unknown-1That was literal. Jutta and Hildegard were immured in a small bare chamber and the entrance was bricked up. There was one window. A “hatch” delivered food. And if that weren’t awful enough, they were clothed in “hair shirts” – intentionally crafted to lacerate the skin.

“Saintly” Jutta, of noble birth. was there supposedly because being mad she was unmarriageable. Actually it was because she was no virgin – raped by her brother. But if not mad to start with, Jutta soon embarked on a project to starve and torture herself to death.

It took thirty years.*

When Hildegard at last emerged into daylight, amazingly she was not mad too. But by then she’d acquired some fellow inmates who formed the core of an abbey of nuns Hildegard went on to establish; something of a fairy tale after her ghastly beginnings.

images-1If that story was ghastly, King David’s was worse. So blood-soaked, so full of human evil. (It too includes a royal brother-sister rape. Indeed, more than just rape.) Brooks’s novel hews quite close to the Bible’s detailed account. The only saving grace is that that was mostly if not entirely fiction. But the way its authors imagined a “hero” shows the barbarity of their minds and their world. Remarkable that people today consider this a “holy” book.

* An Afterward notes a different account saying the “enclosure” began six years later.


Simultaneous pleasures

October 5, 2016


It is sunny, the sky a vivid blue. It’s in the seventies, with a gentle breeze. The warmth, modulated periodically by caresses of air, feels delicious on my body.

I’m relaxing in my lounge chair, leaning back lazily, upon a soft cushion. I have another little cushion to hug the small of my back.

images-1Now add lunch. Some sweet grapes, crunchy tortilla chips, and my favorite iced “sparkling water beverage.”

And now add a good book, to engage the mind while I eat. unknownOr else paper and pen to scribble out something like this, another pleasure. Is it sensory overload?

What does it mean to truly experience something? I try to attend to pleasures; to be fully present to them; when I’m eating something, to be sure I’m really tasting it, without my mind being elsewhere.

But one’s mind is always elsewhere, at least partially. It’s not even a unitary phenomenon, the mind is always doing many things at once. unknown-1And while we think we can multi-task, studies have shown we’re better when focusing on one thing at a time. Trying to do two things at once means neither gets done as well.

So is it possible to enjoy all these different pleasures simultaneously, or does my consciousness actually flit flightily back and forth among them? Do I really fully taste the grapes while my mind is engaged with what I’m reading? And am I still really feeling the Sun’s warmth?

And maybe add some music . . . and suppose further still that what I’m reading is erotically arousing . . . .

Bible Babble

September 17, 2016

The Massachusetts Bible Society is conducting “The Great Bible Experiment” – discussion forums in “America’s least Bible-minded cities.” Strangely, Albany tops that list (maybe it’s all the students; Boston comes second). A radio blurb said a humanist would be on the panel. So I went.

imagesMy wife wouldn’t come, expecting just a sales pitch for Bibles. Actually none were on sale, and the event seemed more or less sincerely aimed at dialog.

I was first handed a questionnaire, asking me to pick six words from a long list to reflect my view of the Bible. Most words were positive, yet I was able to find six: words like dangerous, mis-used, scary, weird.

Attendees were encouraged to submit questions. images-1After one panelist, Father Warren Savage, an African-American Catholic priest, said he believed the Bible is all about love, my question was, “Why did God command the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the cities of Canaan?” The moderator combined it with a similar question citing the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Panelist Tom Krattenmaker responded that he simply disregards the Bible’s less appetizing parts. He was the advertised “humanist,” actually with Yale Divinity School, and author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. images-2He sounded like a Jeffersonian – Jefferson cut up his Bible, making his own book containing only what he deemed Jesus’s words of wisdom, throwing away all the rest. Krattenmaker said he “does not subscribe to the factual existence of God.”

Rev. Anne Robertson, MBS’s head, was an articulate and engaging speaker. She said she’d started as a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” type, a real Biblical literalist, but she’d repented. She spoke of how hard it was for her to first utter “the four words” – “I might be wrong.” Robertson stressed the difference between fact and truth, saying the Bible is not a book of facts, yet conveys truths. And she quoted another Bible bit: “we see through a glass darkly.”

The Abraham and Isaac story, Robertson argued, must be viewed in historical context: it’s an extremely old story dating from a time when child sacrifice was common. And the important thing about Abraham-and-Isaac is how its outcome differs from that cultural paradigm.*

Another question was why the Bible is losing sway. Father Savage answered, “the hypocrisy of Christians who don’t practice what the Bible teaches.” Krattenmaker said he inhabits a culture wherein gays are seen as just ordinary humans, and when Bible-thumpers go around crying “abomination!” it makes the Bible “radioactive.”

images-4As for living Biblical teachings, my second question said, “The Bible teaches I may own slaves, as long as they’re from foreign countries. Does this include Canadians?” But time ran out before that question could be reached.

And I refrained from submitting a further question: if you think the Bible is somehow divinely inspired, how do you know? How could anyone know? (“Faith” can’t be the answer, merely begging the question, what’s the basis for the faith?)

images-3*While the historicity of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East is widely accepted, a lot of that is traceable to what the Bible says – hardly an objective source. Even distant Carthage’s famous child sacrifice comes to us from its Roman conquerors – not an unbiased source either.

The animal that came in from the cold (My Labor Day tribute to work)

September 5, 2016

There’s a cynical misanthropic mentality seeing humanity as a curse upon the planet, and modern life as a snakepit of psychic malaise. I don’t buy it.

imagesRecently I traveled from Albany to New York and all along the way was struck not just by how humankind has thoroughly transformed the landscape, but by the stupendous amount of work it took. Whether it was the roads with all their vehicles, all the buildings and other infrastructure, the farmlands with endless rows of cultivation – how many man-hours of toil!

Unknown-2And did you ever stop to ponder how much metal we use, everywhere? And where it comes from – all the mining and milling and processing and fabrication? And don’t forget what it took for people to figure out how to do all this. Likewise all the buildings – every brick had to be manufactured, transported, cemented. Again, the colossal amount of sheer effort boggles the mind.

And what’s it all for? Quite simply, so we can live with less pain and more comfort and reward. We’re the animal that came in from the cold. Unknown-1We arrived on this planet with nothing, literally naked. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done ourselves. It wasn’t easy. To me it’s a veritable miracle.

This is Man’s fundamental nature. Believing (despite all religion) not that things are up to some God, or fate, but up to us. Not to accept, but to strive. Not to submit, but to prevail.

Faster: the pace of modern life

August 27, 2016

imagesI picked up James Gleick’s book Faster and read it slowly – something it says people rarely do anymore.

The subtitle is The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I was hoping for some insight into the human condition as affected by modernity; our lives are radically different from what we evolved for. But the book reads more like a Seinfeld monologue than a sociology essay – a string of quickie observations, never connected into some over-arching theory or viewpoint. Unknown-1I was reminded of Churchill saying of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”

Yes, in many ways, life has gotten faster. We all know that. But what does it really mean for us? Gleick seems unsure, ambivalent – the book’s tone is bemusement.

He even contradicts himself at times. One chapter (“Short Term Memory”) starts, “As the flow of information accelerates, we may have trouble keeping track of it all.” Gleick explains that the media on which information is recorded quickly becomes obsolete. Tons of data are on floppy disks and microfilms – but can you find the machines today to read them? Et cetera. This is indeed a real problem. Yet then Gleick says: “amnesia doesn’t seem to be [our] worst problem. This new being just can’t throw anything away . . . It has forgotten that some baggage is better left behind. Homo Sapiens has become a packrat.”

But perhaps such contradictoriness really is the essence of this book, in exploring our modern relationship with time. Gleick returns repeatedly to the concept of “saving time,” and how slippery it is. Talking about the genre of self-help books on time-saving, he says this (his emphasis):

Unknown-3“[The authors] reveal confusion about what it means to save time. They flip back and forth between advertising a faster and a slower life. They offer more time, in their titles and blurbs, but they are surely not proposing to extend the 1,440-minute day, so by ‘more’ do they mean fuller or freer time? Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? . . . when we seize it away from a low-satisfaction activity, like ironing clothes, and turn it over to a high-satisfaction activity, like listening to music? What if we do both at once? If you can choose between a thirty minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty minute drive, during which you cannot, does the drive save ten minutes? . . . What if you can listen to [an] audiotape . . . ? Are you saving time, or employing time that you have saved elsewhere . . . ?”

But Gleick doesn’t really philosophize about the nature of time. In physics, it is indeed a tricky and elusive concept. There seem to be fundamental particles of matter, and maybe of space, but not of time; no unit is the limit of smallness in measuring time. Unknown-5And while we all think we know what time’s passage is, we actually don’t experience it as a sequence of moments; “living in the moment” is impossible because as soon as a moment occurs it’s already in the past. The “now” sandwiched between anticipation and retrospect never actually exists as something we can experience.

Time is the one thing which, once lost, can never be replaced. That might not matter much once we achieve immortality (or near-immortality); but as long as we know our allotment is limited, we value every minute. While people may have a lot of mis-judged values, the quest to save time is not one of them.

In my coin business, I used to mail out price lists (very laborious); then take down all the orders on the phone (even more laborious). Now I post the list on the web, and print out the orders. The time savings is great.

One point the book makes is that time has become a commodity, and a lot of our economy concerns its allocation. A business often tries to get customers to pay not just with money but with their time – “some assembly required” – thereby relieving the business of some costs. images-2Buffet restaurants are another example, the customer doing some of the work theretofore done by restaurant staff. There’s a new buffet concept in Japan – instead of “all you can eat” for a fixed price, or charging by the ounce, this eatery charges by the minute. Diners punch a time clock, then rush to the buffet, and wolf down their food as fast as they can. Conversation among dining companions is a casualty (though they can eat with eyes glued to phones). The advantage to the restaurant is obvious – without gourmands lingering over their repasts, many more of them can be serviced. Yet the scheme is quite popular, Gleick reports; Tokyo residents wait in line for the opening gun.

Speaking of eyes glued to phones, Gleick quotes economist Herbert Stein: “It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone . . . deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cellphones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people.”Unknown-7

Reading this made me check the book’s publication date: 1999. Seems like ancient history now. Today many folks are fixated on their phones 24/7 – oblivious to people around them.

This is, again, a mode of existence radically different from our evolutionary antecedents. Some see it as dystopian; yet its extreme popularity tells us that it satisfies human needs in a very deep way. People always had a profound yearning for what their phones provide – but until recently, they just didn’t know it.

Mind and – or versus – brain – and “neuropsychoanalysis”

August 18, 2016

imagesThis book was a gift from my wife: In the Mind Fields by Casey Schwartz. I’ve written before how the concept of the self bugs me. I keep pondering: what, really, is this feeling that I’m me? David Hume identified why this is so hard – it’s using the self to look for itself.

The book is subtitled Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis. But it wasn’t persuasive that there even is such a thing.

It’s a tale of two disciplines. Psychoanalysis, the whole Freudian thing, tries to demystify the workings of the mind. Neuroscience tries to understand the workings of the brain. It’s interested in figuring out how the brain creates the mind. But, once you have one, the thoughts it produces are no concern of neuroscience. That’s psychology, the province of psychoanalysis. And, in turn, psychoanalysis isn’t much interested in the nuts and bolts of brain function that neuroscience explores.

imagesIndeed, as the book says, psychoanalysts are so fixated on the mind that they tend to forget it’s produced by the brain. They’re often actually somewhat hostile to neuroscience, seeing it as aridly divorced from the reality of human experience, as lived through the psychology they are concerned with. While neuroscientists tend to look down on psychoanalysis as unscientific, non-rigorous, subjective psychobabble.

Neuropsychoanalysis (as the name implies) seeks to bridge this chasm, by bringing the findings of neuroscience into the practice of psychoanalysis. However, while its leading prophet, Mark Solms, does use the word, the book left me unclear how, if at all, this marriage actually works in practice.

UnknownEventually, the author comes around to focusing intensively on one case: Harry, and his psychoanalyst, David Silvers. A normal, athletic man, Harry had a stroke in his thirties that partly crippled him and left him aphasic – i.e., largely speechless. (He fully understood language, but couldn’t put thoughts into words.) Unable to continue his tutoring business, Harry’s life became a cycle of medical appointments.

Now, this was quintessentially a neuroscience case. Harry’s problem was not psychological; his brain was physically damaged. Of course, he did have some psychological difficulty adjusting to his loss and new circumstances but that was certainly not mental illness. At one point, though, Silvers labels him “depressed.” That diagnosis seemed superciliously offhand. Depression is a particular pathology, apparently caused by brain chemistry effects. Harry was not “depressed,” he was responding to a rotten break, as any normal person would. If anything, he seemed pretty cheerful under the circumstances.

So what was Harry doing in psychoanalysis altogether? It works by talking through issues with the analyst. But the supreme irony here is that Harry’s problem was his inability to talk! He did manage to communicate, somewhat, sort of. But Silvers acknowledged that his sessions with Harry did not resemble his usual interactions with patients.

The book flap states that Harry “nevertheless benefits from Silvers’s analytic technique.” This assertion is key to the whole book. Yet I could not see how Harry benefited, therapeutically. He and Silvers did establish a human bond, which Harry seemed to value. But Silvers’s psychoanalysis did nothing to improve his situation. In fact, Harry was actually in worse shape at the end.

images-2Nor could I see how Silvers’s efforts could be labeled “neuropsychoanalysis.” He had no neuroscience training, and nowhere did he appear to be using neuroscientific insights to help Harry. This evokes the old saw, “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Silvers’s psychoanalytic toolkit was simply mismatched to Harry’s case.

Freud, who figures prominently throughout this book, had a lot to say about the self and its behavior – some of it wrong, though he himself would have acknowledged the tentativeness of his theories – but he had no clue what makes a self. Someday neuroscience may crack this very hard problem. images-1Then maybe I can finally know who and what I am.