Monday, October 31, 2005

Time change reflections


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.

MaƱana 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.


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 overused,
Like a greedy, hungry maw
Demanding more food.

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

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,

— 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.

Update, Nov. 26, 2019: It's not just me who will call it belief. Read this in-depth take on all of the "issues" with positive psych, including, but not limited to, its parallels to religion. It also notes why Seligman pushed for it.

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. (Per the update, it seems he has "good personal reason" not to do this, related to fame, prestige and reputation as well as money.)

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. (Update, Nov. 27, 2019 — beyond that blog post, the rise of the "Big Five" personality profile seems to offer more information that — within some ranges — our personality thermostats aren't too changeable by the time we're adults. And, per the update link at top, Seligman himself might be support for that; he's reportedly still a curmudgeonly grouch.)

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.