Saturday, December 31, 2005

To a god dying young

I started this poem way back in college days in the mid-1980s. I fine-tuned it and added the “Calvary” stanza in 2001.

TO A GOD DYING YOUNG

From afar we spied your sovereignty;
Demons submissive, driven out
By might of godly majesty.
We awaited you without doubt.

At Nazareth, your native land,
We thirsted for bread and miracles,
Scraping for aid, greedy for proof,
Skeptical of a rebel son.

But you said 'No' to hardened hearts –
You knew our secret thoughts within;
Our bare, bland hypocrisy
Rejected in indignation.

Calvary beckoned from the mist
Of fact and mythology.
The glories, the pains, the fame –
”This do in remembrance of me.”

Ears the heavens have muffled shut,
Eyes ensconced beneath starlit sea;
Slain Messianic martyr, but
Dead, you live for all eternity.

Smart God, to slip betimes away,
Escaping human frailty.
Hallowed your name, worshiped today.
And thus you won, O Christ of Galilee.

- July 10, 2001

The church was silent

This is an autobiographical poem. My father was a Lutheran pastor, from the main conservative Lutheran denomination, and when I was 9 or 10 years old, a man came into our church during Ash Wednesday services. After church, he told dad he was demon-possessed and wanted an exorcism.

Well, we had a psychiatrist who was a member, and at church that night. He picked up the phone and called the main local hospital and made the necessary arrangements for the man (I’m guessing a schizophrenic) to be admitted.

Meanwhile, though, rather than do a mock exorcism or try a real one, my dad said, “I can’t do that,” or similar. I understood him to be saying, “I don’t have the power to do that.”

I knew the “longer ending” of Mark had Jesus explicitly giving his disciples power to cast out demons in his name. Earlier in Mark, chapter 6, he sounds out the 12 disciples, in a passage accepted as authentic from all early manuscripts, and “gave them authority over evil spirits.”

Now, my dad was working on a graduate degree involving comparative religion of different American Indian tribes and groups. We lived at the edge of the Navajo Reservation. And he took seriously things such as witchcraft.

So, to hear him say, “I can’t do that,” well, read on.

THE CHURCH WAS SILENT

The church was silent
The darkness as thick as death
The fear oppressive.

The demoniac
Came seeking deliverance
From reverend dad.

“I don’t have power
To accomplish that,” said he.
Wilting at the call.

For the first time, then,
Reverend dad did stumble
And loose all his masks.

The clinging velvet
Of fear-born suffocation
Was, was that darkness.

My liberation
Began that night in Gallup
The night dad fell short.

My fear of the dark
Was already within me
From other sources.

This was little more
Trinity’s darkness little more
Than the other fears.

A bit more of fear
Was a small price to pay, then
For liberation.

Liberation from
Old ideas began that night.
In Trinity dark.

- Written July 1, 2001

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

While enjoying late-night skies

NIGHTTIME LIGHTS, NIGHTTIME CLOUDS

Nighttime city clouds
Puffy altocumulus
Reflect city lights.

I stand in wonder
At man-made surreal color
But without portent.

While staring upward
I wonder within myself
Am I the only one?

Am I the only one
To stare with childlike wonder
And well past midnight?

Camera is tempting
But I resist the siren
For it is useless.

No film or sensor
Has such sensitivity
As my poignant eye.

— Dec. 13, 2005

Monday, December 12, 2005

Written while pondering online ...

WEBCAM SOLILIQUIES TO A QUANTUM MACROWORLD

The people on camera move, and stop, and move again
Or, when in close-in range on their lenses,
And in sudden excitatory states,
Blur out over the entire screen,
Smearing like electrons,
And the more so, the closer we look.

What a metaphor for a 21st-century online world.
A world of blur and indeterminacy,
Actors of indeterminate time, energy and position
Of quasi-stochastic appearance.
Where and when they will slow to Newtonian pace
We never know.

— Dec. 12, 2005

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The problem of evil bites monotheism with a vengeance

It’s far worse than the basic omnipotence vs. omnibenevolence dichotomy would have it seem.

The bare-bones, cut-to-the-chase definition of the problem of evil is that a Western monotheistic God, as normally defined, is impossible, because you can’t square a god who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent with the existence of evil. That, of course, goes in spades for the existence of natural evil. (No time is being taken here to refute the arguments of theists who claim otherwise; there’s plenty of books and compendiums by professional philosophers who have already shot down the Alvin Plantingas of theistic apologetics.)

I, though, charge that this fissure the problem of evil exposes in classical monotheism is only the opening view of a far deeper crevasse, which I will quickly show by means of an informal sorites. (No need to write it out, it’s that simple.) In short, omnipotence and omnibenevolence are even more at war than it appears.

Knowledge is mental power, therefore a god who is less than omnipotent must be less than omniscient. Truly being able to care for another person, as empathy vs. sympathy exemplies, means knowing their needs. A god less than omniscient therefore cannot be omnibenevolent.

Ergo, a god less than omnipotent cannot be omnibenevolent. Throwing out the bathwater, a la Rabbi Kushner, won’t save any sort of recognizable baby.

(Kushner is the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which [reading between the lines] faces the problem of evil by admitting that the God of Rabbi Kushner is not omnipotent but really is omnibenevolent.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Ezra, meet Snopes

Biblical literalists, or semi-literalists, who think the allegedly pious intent of the allegedly known authors means the material must be true, should read Snopes. No, the editor of Isaiah I, II and III, or the E, J, D and P threads of the Torah didn’t have Photoshop, but he had a fair amount of technical skill, an editor’s technique and a polemicist’s eye.

Yes, mistakes were made. The wonder is not so many but so few. With literacy rates of 5 percent and literally only a dozen or two copies of, let’s say, the different strands of the Torah floating around, an editor by the name of, shall we say, Ezra, didn’t have the luxury of typewriter inventor Christopher Sholes, let alone our computerized world today.

No double spaced lines or marginal room for extensive copy editing or proofreading notes. No nice blank parchment to transcribe comments to, oir make notes. No extra copy of the parment to refer upward from what would become Exodus 34 back to Exodus 28.

Nope, it all was done by memory. Even with priestly assistants, this would not have been easy.

Why don’t we have even more variants today?

A number of answers abound.

First, Ezra may have deliberately burned exemplars. This would not have been to hide his tracks, but to remove confusion, on the one hand, and to get people to focus on him as a religious leader, along with his new all-in-one edition, on the other hand.

Second, despite conservatives’ brushoffs that they have just minor textual differences, we do have a number of variants. Qumran, with close but different versions, plus more variant versions sounding like midrash at points, show the difference. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, reflects some of these variants. There are even more variants in the other two divisions of the Tanakh — the Nibi’im and the Kethubim (the Prophets and the Writings).

The former prophets of Joshua-Kings have different versions with major genealogical differences. Jeremiah in Greek and Qumran Hebrew versions is more than 10 percent shorter and in different order.

The point of the Snopes link is to show how easily something that people want to believe gets spread around.

Take the Torah. Take it in its historical context.

Judah is a Persian backwater named Yehud, ca. 450 BCE. The alleged permanency of the Davidic dynasty, as claimed in Samuel, seems laughable if not pathetic. The hopes of some sort of restoration, reflected in Haggai and the first part of Zechariah, have gone by the boards. The priestly line does some more permanence (we won’t get into Aaronic, Zadokite and other priestly lines that may have actually or legendarily existed) but may be at loggerheads with itself.

Then Ezra presents a fait accompli. Yes, the learned had earlier versions of a proto-Torah, but as separate writings, not as one theoretically continuous narrative. Nor did they have literature presented as though it had one overarching theology.

The leaders of Yehud wanted to believe they were more than a Persian backwater. And so Ezra’s Torah spread like wildfire.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Acceptance and no Cartesian Central Meaner — who’s accepting what?

In an earlier post, I indicated that I not only agreed with Dan Dennett on the lack of a “Cartesian Central Meaner,” but even went beyond that. In the years since I first read “Consciousness Explained,” (which waggishly should have the better title of “Dan Dennett’s Idea of Consciousness Explained”), I’ve become more accepting of this idea.

Who has? Well, I said that I have.

Oops.

I think I (dang it, did it again, like the Knights Who Used to Say Nee) have a paradox worthy of Zeno.

There is no “I” (can’t say “I have no ‘I,’” can I [“I”?]) to accept that “I” don’t exist.

What a tangled web I (“I”) weave. Doug Hofstadter would just looove this one.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Are you looonely tonight?

It may not just be a song, it may be you. Twin research on 8,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins indicates a moderate- to fair-sized correlation for a hereditary tendency toward loneliness. As I’ve noted in posts and responses to commenters here, I do believe there is a valid discipline of evolutionary psychology, while I am at the same time far and away from believing every claim of its biggest boosters and their just-so stories.

So what’s the evolutionary advantage of loneliness, if this isn’t just a spandrel from genes coding for a tendency to something else?

The researchers suggest that loneliness may stem from prehistoric times, where hunter-gatherers may have deliberately shut themselves away from others so they did not have to share food.

That would have meant they were better nourished and therefore better able to survive and have children.

But loneliness would already then, and certainly today, does have its downside, the researchers caution. Then:

But they added that the strategy had a downside, in that it also developed dispositions towards anxiety, hostility, negativity and social avoidance.

And now:

Loneliness has been linked to heart disease as well as emotional problems, such as anxiety, self-esteem problems and sociability.

One naysayer psychologist offers a caution:

Dr Arthur Cassidy, a psychologist at the Belfast Institute, said people could learn behaviours from their families.

“They may have a very pessimistic outlook and interpret things in a very negative way, so people can learn to become pessimistic and therefore to become lonely.”

Actually, all Dr. Cassidy does it to show that he apparently doesn’t recognize how twin studies are controlled, through studies of adopted twins, etc., to control for environmental influences such as that as much as possible. Besides, it is likely that as much of a sociological influence toward loneliness would come from outside the family structure as from within.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

More about whether “happiness is really that achievable”

Blogger Greensmile asked me for evidence of my “lot of empirical research” claim in this post that we really can’t do too much changing of our own “emotional thermostats.”

I posted two responses in the comments myself, but the third had too many weblinks to be accepted. That's fine; a longer update on the main page is probably good anyway.

Short answer: I am talking about evolutionary psychology and its cousin focusing on human differences, behavioral genetics. Not meaning to stereotype, but many progressives (though not this one) look at ev psych with at least mock if not real horror.

Now, I take a fair amount of a, say, Steve Pinker with a grain of salt. I do that with basically anything Randy Tannehill says. But someone like a Matthew Ridley points out what is the "baby" of a reasonable evolutionary psychology after you throw out the bathwater.

Point is, if, to use crude shorthand and a hand-drawn syllogism, if:
A. The mind is the brain
B. Evolution is a scientifically demostrated theoy, then
C. Ergo, some version of ev psych must be true.

Now, on to the details of those links.

First, I’ve blogged about the difference between evolutionary psychology and Evolutionary Psychology.

Second, here’s some clear evidence of internal physiological constraint on emotional tendencies — this constraint being genetic. MAOA gene correlates with strong tendency to antisocial behavior.

Third, not all emotional “locking in” of an internal emotional thermostat is genetic. Though.. For example, look at the effects of brain trauma on psychopathy.

Fourth, Orwell aside, let’s remember that some identical twins are more identical than others. Nature and the womb environment can reinforce each other.

Let me get more explicit with this emotional thermostat metaphor.

Your home or office thermostat, if set at, for example, 70 degrees, will kick in between 68 and 72. So, that thermostat is not locked on a single point. But yours may be set at 70 and mine at 68. So, I run “cooler,” which in this case would be leaning toward the pessimistic rather than optimistic view of life. Where’s the “center point”? That’s subjective. My “realism” may be your “pessimism.”

Or, we may be both set at 70, but mine comes on between 68 and 72 and yours runs from 65 to 75. In other words, you are more emotional. I am talking here about whether you have a certain emotionaltiy and not whether you express the emotion outwardly or keep it constrained. That may be related, but it is not exactly the same thing.

Here, the question is, in medical terms, what’s “normal” and what’s “bipolar”? I have no problem with admitting the definitions are socially driven, while still saying the actual behavior is more inwardly driven.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

GENESIS 6 RETOLD

Mighty sons of god
Knew lowly daughters of men
And produced monsters.

The hard earth trembled
Beneath half-breed tyranny
Though only in myth.

God decried his works
Yet blamed it all on earthmen
And disavowed them.

An early Pilate,
Hands dripping hypocrisy,
Washed his hands in wrath.

Noah survived the storm
Through capricious blessing,
Meeting hinted fate.

Castrated by Ham?
Indeed. Like Greek Ouranos
Cut down in slumber.

Hebrew reticence
Will not tell the fateful truth
More than Oedipal.

The deepest revenge –
Blackest, hateful rebellion –
Proved most godlike.

Yahweh remained remote
At the base sexual parricide,
Knowing its true object.

Uneasy lies the god who wears a crown
As master of fate and all.
A myth better ignored than overthrown.

Shiva rules

BRAVE NEW WORLD 1945

June 16, 1945.
Alamogordo.
Trinity Site.
“I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.”
So said Oppenheimer
At the moment of blast.
A brilliance that froze time,
Nay, did more than that;
A Kabbalahesque shattering of vessels
Of an old way of life.
Computers, Internets
DNA, cloning –
The wheel of time goes but one direction –
Forward only.
Unstoppered genies
Cannot be bottled again.
To know, to dissect, to grow
Is our curse.
“I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds – “
And builder anew.

Steve Snyder
March 16, 2001

Fear of death, or of life?

FEAR OF DEATH, OR OF LIFE?

The dead, nobly and ignobly alike,
Sleep deep in orthogonal plots of countryside.
Their selves matter not one whit to the breathing world,
Save one elemental fact – their death.

And yet, I feel that emptiness primordial
As I speed by each country-yard site,
The fear that I am giving a life unlived as boon
Not living fully out of fears of hurt,
Not surrendering my self as hostage to life – or death.

That poignant mix of ache and dread,
That desire to do else but search out not what,
That fear to act and fail, to live and be struck down,
To reach and fall short –
Abides deep in this troubled soul.

The fear of death? Nay, that’s but light grace.
The fear of dying? That’s but bit more,
Save some physical pains.
The fear of living?
The fear of letting die old fears, of murdering old ways of being myself?
That poignant drive
Invokes my envy of those with black rest in the country yards.

     Steve Snyder
     July 4, 2001

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Think back 5,000 years

As we live today’s American rat race, in jobs which even if largely fitting our skills and interests, still have stretches of boredom, frustration and tension; in lives which, even if relatively tranquil overall, also still have stretches and boredom, frustration and tension, we often look to how changing major parts of our lives — such as our jobs or even our career paths — might reinvigorate our very selves.

Then think back to, say, about 3000 BCE. Picture being a peasant farmer in the fields at the edge of at Ur or one of the other city-states of the Fertile Crescent. What can you change?

You were not born a royal or a priest — often of the same family — so possibilities of civic leadership are excluded.

Your ancestors have farmed for, say, nearly 1,000 years. Much old hunter-gatherer knowledge of edible wild plants outside of the edges of cultivated areas has long since been lost, as have hunting and stalking skills. To go back to that life would be risky indeed.

Brigandage? The current priest-king is renowned for having established a new level of order in his bounds, and stretching those bounds. The rewards may be great in the short term, but surely will have no long term.

As prosperity swells Ur, the lure of the city has grown for many peasants. But now, in your latter 30s, you fear that you are an old donkey unable to learn new tricks. Besides, a touch of arthritis in your hands restricts how much crafting skill you can develop, anyway.

Nothing remotely close to modern games exist. Ritual re-enactments of actions of the gods enliven some days and nights in Ur, but your small village has nothing of the sort.

Life is not nasty, brutish and short. Rather, it is mind-numbing, steam-rolling and interminable. Even a Zen-like detachment fails to offer relief, with so little to detach from in the first place.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Time change reflections

FALL IS FALLING FAST

Fall is falling fast;
The poignant late-October sun
Has a thinner evening yellow cast on the prairie grasses every day.
The first northers push out summer’s last remnants
And usher in wanly crystal-clear skies,
Pale by the comparisons of June just past.
The wan sunlight is not that of spring,
The thinner October sky not April’s, or even March’s.
And it reflects my moods, my history, my premonitions of coming weeks.
But late October sometimes has a Texas delight –
A day drenched with sun bright not wan,
A glorious, grand fall day,
Ninety in the sun, eighty in the shade.
An October day that leaves Texas panting
For the next brisk norther,
Even if fall is falling fast.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Death is...

From an “assignment” from “Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery”

A bitch… and not just metaphorically. It’s Kali devouring life. It’s the ultimate speed limit of life. Death is the ultimate focal lens of life, too.

And that’s a great metaphor. It’s like death is a zoom lens, with a wide range of f-stops. The long-distance future looks very clear at f/32 on a young 80-200 lens.

But, like the lens of the eye, that lens gets less supple as we age. It can’t focus in and out so far, so it loses its distance. The long-range future doesn’t have as much clarity, focus, or depth. It lacks depth, because we’re stopped down to 22, then 16, then 11.

However, it seems to acquire a better macro quality as we age. The close-ups of life’s literal and metaphorical flowers get sharper and more brilliant. Plus, the lens takes on more and more wide-angle capabilities. We see more around ourselves. We are able to take in more at one time.

Unfortunately, not all of us clean or take care of our lenses as we age. Some of them acquire intellectual glaucoma, a tunnel vision of the mind. Others mist up, or lose the ability to focus forward.

But without death, there would be no focal point… only an endless stretch to infinity.

Mañana would recur day after day. The boredom of the Christian heaven could be life here on earth. And, with no death ever, the overcrowding, the stifling lack of space of Vanarasi compounded, would be too much.

Death, a good and timely death, is a butler and a servant, as Dickenson well knew.

Dennett’s wrong stance on free will

First, I use the word “stance” deliberately, pointing at his “intentional stance.”

The “intentional stance” (and “The Intentional Stance”) both overlook the elephant in the corner — Whose intentional stance?

In other words, who is having this intentional stance?

Well, I am, of course.

Really?

What “I” are you? Or am I?

I agree with Dennett that there is no “Cartesian meaner.” But, in so saying (and offering evidence toward that end), he has kicked the props out from under the “intentional stance” (and, yes, “The Intentional Stance”).

If there’s no “I” at the core, in the sense of a master controller, there’s no “intentional stance.”

Actually, that’s not quite right.

There’s no single intentional stance. Instead, there are several sub-intentional stances, some stronger, some weaker, some more permanent, some fleeting.

And now you, dear reader, know exactly where I’m going with the free will issue.

I’m not coming at it from Libet’s consciousness potential or any other ground-up approach. Instead, this is top down.

If there’s no Central Meaner, then, there’s no Central Willer. And no Central Free Willer. (Or Central Free Willy, if you’re a cetacean.)

Again, there are arguably sub-free wills, but if some are weaker or more ephemeral, well, then, “not all free wills are equally free.”

In short, I would say that at base, “free will” is no less an illusion than “I.”

It’s not that it’s philosophically impossible to have some variety of free will; I agree with the broad outlines of Dennett’s writing on this issue.

Rather, it’s that it’s psychologically impossible to have such a thing.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

LOVE IS ...

“Love” is overused,
Like a greedy, hungry maw
Demanding more food.

“Love” is overused,
A spreading, yawning sinkhole
Swallowing victims.

Unconditional
It is not. It cannot be,
And never has been.

Love always has cost;
Even self-love has its price
And its conditions.

Love always demands
Choices, decisions, actions,
None of them painless.

Love is insistent,
Pressing, unsafe, insecure,
Even when quiet.

Love is imperfect
And no Platonic ideal,
Yet is idolized.

“Love” is many words
Used indiscriminately,
Cobbled together.

“Love” is many things,
Sweetness and light and darkness,
Indefinable.

— Steve Snyder
July 21, 2004

Is happiness all that it’s cracked up to be? Is it really that achievable? Is it really different from contentment?

The Dalai Lama, psychologist Martin Seligman and others claim that:

A. It is; and

B. We can control and choose our happiness levels.

However, happiness gurus overlook a lot of empirical research that points against their beliefs. And yes, even with Seligman, I’ll call it belief.

First, they ignore differing genetic makeups. Given that Seligman has written an entire book on what we can and what we cannot change about ourselves, it’s sad he hasn’t addressed this. On the other hand, given that he has established himself as a happiness guru in the last couple of years, with high-dollar seminars, coaching, etc., perhaps I should say it’s “disquieting” or “troubling” rather than “sad,” approaching a conflict of interest between research and his seminars and such.

Throw in uncontrollable environmental effects, from maternal womb hormones through child sexual or physical abuse, and you have other factors that lessen the degree of control we have over our emotional thermostats. (This is not to excuse willful venting of anger done under the guise of a pseudo-lack of control.)

Seligman and others overlook, empirically, and the Dalai Lama spiritually or whatever, the effects of priming. A number of studies have shown that the weather has a definite priming effect on one’s happiness self-assessment. So, too, do things such as lucky events shortly before being asked if one is happy, such as finding money “randomly” left somewhere by a researcher.

Now, Seligman will argue that he is teaching long-term contentment rather than momentary and fleeting happiness. I’m sure the Dalai Lama would say similar.

I would argue from the standpoints of both cognitive science and evolutionary psychology that my genetic counterarguments against happiness hold true for contentment as well.

From personal experience, I would argue the same on childhood traumas. On family systems therapy and related study, I would say ditto on the womb as an environmental uncontrollable effect.

Now, priming doesn’t have the same effect on long-term contentment, it might be contended. However, to the degree that contentment is an accumulation of fleeting moments of happiness, to riff on Hume, repeated priming, in part by having a high happiness index that sets oneself up to be readily primeable, maybe it does.

Update, Nov. 10:
Greensmile, in his second comment, asked what some of this "lot of empirical research" might be. See my post above, which grew too long for an update.

Out, out brief candles, part 2

aThe many I’s and the roles we play are the dialogues that make our inner lives rich, even if as Walter Mittys.

Some of us do that more than others. Some of us indulge in that, to put the emphasis on consciousness of this that the normal public “I,” the quasi-equivalent of the Freudian superego, has.

What’s the harm in it?

Well, someone might say that overindulgence can lead toward the precipice of borderline personality disorder, or something similar. But, again, if there is no central I, who, if anybody, is being harmed?

To the degree that we each have a quasi-core I, of which there exist subpersonalities, rather than fully independent I’s in the plural, or nearly so, eventually that near-core I can be harmed. In short, we might move from a uniform, yet latitudinarian I, to borrow from Episcopalianism, to multiple I’s to the detriment of that unitary I and its various manifestations.

But, the sub-I’s might be better off. Who’s to say?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Music review: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

I give her new Naxos album, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra/Rituals for five Percussionists and Orchestra a B, maybe a B-. I'm grading primarily on the music as written, not performances or recording.

The violin concerto, with central movement based on Bach's Chaconne, has some touching moments. But, the third movement doesn't greatly bestir me.

As for Rituals, there's definitely better pieces in the modern classical percussion repertoire. Mihaud's Percussion Concerto. Evelyn Glennie. Some of the pieces on Percussion XX, featuring Jonathan Farelli.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Out, out brief candles

Shakespeare said:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.”

I believe that if the open-minded and perceptive bard were around today to note the observations of cognitive science and neuroscience, and the mental understandings of cognitive science and philosophy, he might add to those lines, or develop them differently. (Perhaps contact with Eastern religions would have stimulated this.)

Try this:
“Life’s but our walking shadows, our poor players
That strut and fret their hours upon the stage;
Each plays its role, no one to mark them all.
Not even inside.”

There is no I. What we think we are is actually many “I’s,” or if you will, “sub-I’s.” More reductionist cognitive scientists like Dan Dennett might talk about subroutines.

But there is no master routine, at least not on a de jure basis. Some subpersonalities are normally in the driver’s seat, but that is by force of habit, acculturation and development.