Thursday, December 21, 2006

Is Buddhism a religion?

If I can be allowed to redefine religion as a belief in metaphysical ideas, such as reincarnation or other things based on a system of ontological dualism, I would say yes.

But, I don’t think I have to go that far.

I think karma can readily be understood as an impersonal Higher Power/Ground of Being, one that is not worshipped but is nonetheless seen in some way as omnipotent, then it qualifies on that ground, too, in my understanding.

Let’s put it this way. If we call religion a focus on a metaphysical ultimate principal of organization (another way of saying Ground of Being), it qualifies.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why “the prayer of Jabez”? Why not “the vow of Jephthah”?

I’m in the midst of reading through Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” at the point where he mentions the vow of Jephthah in the book of Judges, after defeating the Ammonites, to sacrifice the first living thing he meets from his house.

That “living thing” is his daughter. And, unlike with the “sacrifice” of Isaac, nobody does any editorial tidying to this story, perhaps because she is female and not male. She gets sacrificed and that’s that.

Why, instead of the “prayer of Jabez” to get rich, don’t conservative Christians instead cite the “vow of Jephthah” as an example of God-pleasing (hey, the sacrifice was not only not interrupted, it is nowhere condemned in Judges) resolute single-mindedness?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The reason one or two particular versions of early Christianity has some appeal to me

But not enough realism, for the most part, to be usable

Whether or not there even was a Jesus of history, one of the earliest Christianities, and the first to impute words to a historical Jesus, was the Cynic-shaped “Galilean Christianity.”

Combining the maxims and convention-rejecting emphasis of Cynicism with the prophetic preaching of late-Israelite proto-Judaism was a potent mix. For a person wanting a foundation for personal and spiritual growth that transcended the materialism of its day just as much as ours, why wouldn’t a quasi-idealist like me be attracted?

And, speaking of idealism …

The middle Platonism of the early Christian philosophers has some appeal. Defining a heaven or afterlife as a progression into a Platonic ideal self and locale, without the mysticism or worse of later Neoplatonism has some appeal, especially if one does so with a non-Greek emphasis on a physical, yet somehow Paulist spiritual, body, and rejects the existence of an immaterial soul.

Of course, that’s not a key tenet of Platonism.

As for the other aspects of Christianity in its development, the jealous tribal God Yahweh of the Torah and Former Prophets has zero appeal. Neither does the dripping vengeance of Iranian apocalyptic dualism, wedded and welded to Judaism beginning with Daniel. Certainly the religious mysticism and the philosophical mumbo-jumbo of Paul’s adaptation of eastern Mediterranean mystery religions doesn’t, either.

Alas, though, there’s no indication of a divinity of any sort, let alone one powerful enough to recreate physical bodies into some Platonic ideal.

As for Cynic maxims and Israelite outcries, well I can, and hope I continue to, get better and living that from a secular background.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A “shocking” way to think yourself smarter

German scientists have found that stimulating the sleeping brain with light electric current boosts memory.

The current was applied during the slow-wave oscillation of early sleep, before the onset of the first REM stage. The scientists claimed an eight percent boost was demonstrated, which would be significant indeed.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

November: A time for poignancy

From my Nov. 2 newspaper column:

This time of year is always poignant for me.

We are full-blown into fall now, even in north Texas, let alone places either further north or at higher elevations where I have lived elsewhere in my life. With the change in seasons comes not just cooler weather, but more clouds, more rain, more fog.

The days have already been shortening, and the change in the length of the daytime speeds up the more we get into fall. The increase in cloudy days means less sunlight yet.

And then, sharply, comes this change back to Standard Time from Daylight Saving Time. No transitions, like moving time back 15 minutes each of four Sundays. The full hour of earlier eventide hits at once.

Again, the effect is even sharper further north, where the day has been ending earlier than this far south, and fall is often cloudier, if you go far enough north.

Poignant? Yes. Philosophical, pensive, reflective, even.

First, I think of the ludicrousness of the idea that we are actually controlling time, let alone "saving" any time or daylight as the phrase "Daylight Saving Time" would have us believe. (Someone like a dairy farmer would probably say we're actually losing, not saving, anything.)


But, if we recognize time as an elemental dimension, part of the fabric of our world that Albert Einstein identified as space-time, the idea of saving or controlling it really sounds ludicrous, or hubristic.

Do we change the defined length of a foot or meter in summer because objects expand in hot weather? Of course not.

Now, especially as a night owl, I will say I appreciate our collective action of Daylight Saving Time, even if based on a fiction.

Besides, the measuring units of time in hours, minutes and seconds, outside of daytime and nighttime, are arbitrary anyway. As I wrote in a poem:

"What was saved or conserved these last months, really,

When divisions, boundaries, and placements of time

Are all arbitrary? ...

Nothing is saved;

Rather, the human mind is slaved,

Enslaved to the idea that an elemental dimension

Can somehow be tweaked and bent to our convenience

And put to work, like a six-month summer CD, to earn interest."

But, I started this column about the feeling, the emotion, of poignancy, not as a disquisition on either philosophy or Einsteinian relativity.

First, just what is poignancy? Here's how I defined it, in another poem:

"Poignancy is

A gentle sadness tingeing life

A gentle, tender, humble sadness

One that does not diminish joys when they come

But knows that every joy has seeds of pain

Of limitation, of human frailty."

I went on to tie it to seasonal changes and nature:

"I am poignant

Upon seeing near-bare trees

Of late fall, or

Pale, thin sunsets

In February."

Some people have seasonally-affected depression. For these people, the production of, or sensitivity to, brain neurotransmitters like serotonin, is affected by the shorter, cloudier days. Some people actually need to have expensive "full spectrum" artificial lighting around them as part of their treatment for this.

That's not what I'm talking about. Rather, it's a being in touch with, and appreciation of, the changes in nature and the finiteness of life they indicate.

At the same time, those shorter days, cloudier skies and de-greening trees show that beauty can come out of change, even decay.

And this year may be a good one.

Earlier this year, I was worried that summer drought might mean a drab fall. But, early signs indicate that may not be the case.

Pecans and other early turners don't look too affected as they have started showing their colors. But, those aren't the big fall trees for us.

The various species of red oaks, offset by bur oaks and any other white oaks around, key our fall, since we are conspicuously short on northeastern maples and high-country aspen. Early signs indicate they may have some colors besides various shades of brown in their palettes, too.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Memory experts: even the best are fallible

Inaccuracy of memory expert Elizabeth Loftus will not be an expert witness at Scooter Libby’s trial over the Valerie Plame CIA leak.

Why? In part because Judge Reggie Walton ruled that jurors should be able to decide for themselves on the reliability of a particular person’s memory without Scooter using Loftus as an expert witness precisely to make himself look more fallible.

But, during a hearing before Walton’s ruling, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald gave Loftus a once, and twice over.

And? He “picked apart the psychologist's testimony until she acknowledged errors and misstatements in her findings.”

That included admitting that some of her own findings were unscientific. Specifically:
Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense.


Now, I don’t view this as a sudden victory for touters of repressed memories. I do see it as a caveat that EVERY expert in the social sciences may be whistling in the dark at times.

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A music-shopping fool am I

As some of you may know, Tower Records is going out of business. Well, tonight, I finally got to the Dallas Tower for the first time since the company officially announced its pending demise. With everything 30 percent off, I finally forced myself to the sales counter after more than an hour and 22 CDs (16 classical) of shopping. I guess it’s a moral frugality victory to have spent less than $200.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Superheroes, Jesus and infancy gospels

What do they have in common? Well, a writer in my office was mentioning childhood “miracles” of Superman. Sounds similar to how the “authentic/canonical” gospels’ material developed into infancy gospels of Boy Wonder Jesus.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

THE OLD DISPENSATION

The old dispensation has come again;
The placement of time has been realigned to its origin.
What was saved or conserved these last months, really,
When divisions, boundaries, and placements of time
Are all arbitrary?

Not just with Prufrock’s measuring spoons
Do I lay out and measure my life.
The egg timer’s old-styled workings,
Its affected façade of accuracy,
And, above all, its smallness of scale,
Are all for me,
To measure out my time in thimblefuls
While pouring it away elsewhere in torrents.

And so, the daylight close comes one hour earlier,
Whether measured by clock hands shoved backward,
Digital watch buttons pushed and pushed and pushed,
Or atoms of cesium arbitrarily renumerated.

Nothing is saved;
Rather, the human mind is slaved,
Enslaved to the idea that an elemental dimension
Can somehow be tweaked and bent to our convenience
And put to work, like a six-month summer CD, to earn interest.

Nothing is saved;
Rather, the human mind is slaved,
Only to be jarred out of its Platonic cave
As the human body feels the one-hour shock
Every fall anew.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

To heck with the Fine Arts Chamber Players as well as the DSO

After seeing that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was doing nothing special in either last year’s or this year’s concert season for the Shostakovich centennial, I held out hope for the Fine Arts Chamber Players. In fact, I requested the group do a Shostakovich-heavy first concert.

Did it? Hell, no. Look at the schedule.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Wasn’t that a nice sunset yesterday?

Including some thought provoked about atonement

It sure was here in Dallas, for the start of Yom Kippur. (I had Kol Nidre playing on the stereo at the same time.)

It made me think that if I weren’t already an atheist having sprung out of a conservative Protestant background, I wouldn’t mind being an atheist with a current Reform Jewish heritage.

How do you ask forgiveness if there’s no personal deity? It’s possible; obviously, Theravada Buddhists have been doing this for thousands of years. I, in the past, worked through how one has an “attitude of gratitude” when you believe there’s nobody to whom to be grateful.

First, if you approach this from a communal point of view, there’s other people from whom to ask forgiveness. Beyond that, and not to sound New Agey, maybe you do need to ask forgiveness from yourself. After all, if prayer is really a heart-to-heart talk with yourself then atonement is on the same line.

So there you go.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

What's wrong with the core assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology

In writing this post, I am working with Imre Lakatos’ philosophy of science understanding of the development and refinement of scientific theories, rather than Popper’s falsification theory. (A great oversimplification of Lakatos is that rather than putting one theory up for falsification against a null set, a falsifiability-based potential counterexample, instead, multiple theories running on somewhat parallel explanatory tracks are thrown into the same “warm little pond” of a quasi-Darwinian intellectual evolutionary contest. The “fittest,” especially if clearly the fittest, emerges as the working theory until the scientific-evolutionary design space changes sufficiently enough (and perhaps suddenly enough, a la Kuhn) to put this working theory into a new intellectual evolution arms race.

Lakatos talks about “hard-core” portions of a theory without which it is, in essence, not the same theory. I just used “core” in my headline, but by it, I mean hard core.

It’s clear the hard core of Ev Psych is an strongly adaptationist understanding of evolutionary biology. I’ve made an initial statement here on what’s wrong with that, and made a first observation here on one item of fallout from adaptation being wrong, namely the idea that evolution is an algorithmic process.

More specifically than that, though, what’s wrong with adaptationism?

Optimality, just as I noted in my initial post on this subject.

More specifically than I mentioned there, what’s wrong with optimality? (I there said it was at least quasi-utopian, and hinted that it could be seen as quasi-idealistic, in the Platonic sense. In both ways, I called it “Leibnitzian,” as in it claims we are in essence living in the best, or at least nearly the best, of all evolutionarily possible worlds. I also said this smacked of Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God rather than drinking from the better waters of David Hume.

First, a series of rhetorical questions:
Who defines what “optimal” is? (Ev Psychers claim they can look at the EEA, but can they really define it that clearly?

For what length of time is a evolutionary change supposed to be optimal? Five minutes? (That can be a lifetime for a single-celled creature.) Five hours? Five days? Five years? Five centuries? Five millennia? Five eons? Even if optimality is true, a trait might be optimal today, non-optimal a century from now, but optimal again a century after that.

Now, I have no problem admitting that many evolutionary changes are adaptationistic — but not all of them.

However, that needs a further, and larger, caveat: a better definition of what it means for an evolutionary trait to be adaptationistic.

Just because a change is adaptationistic, this does NOT mean that it is optimal. Rather, it may simply be melioristic, that is, better than what was before but not the best. And it seems to me that hard-core adaptationists have totally blown by this distinction, or else tried to run it over and grind it into the dirt.

Now back to the critique that Ev Psych is some secular equivalent of the argument from design. To that degree, especially when a Dan Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” can laud evolutionary nature as a quality creator, we are getting very close to a secular equivalent of Intelligent Design.

The teleological nature of trying to define what is “optimal” further parallels the teleological basis of intelligent design.

Beyond that, I have philosophical problems with an absolutist, or quasi-absolutist, theory, which a theory based on claims of optimality really is. Also, given that scientific understanding is normally understood to be provisional, and optimality is, in essence, a static state, it seems frozen in amber.

Another way of understanding this particular point is to see that the adaptationist program has a teleological view of progress, or, should we say Progress with a Platonic Idea capital P?

If we see adaptationism having this mindset to some degree, even if not entirely, it is then arguable that it is a metaphysical program. Especially taking φυσις in its original Greek meaning of “nature,” a program of Progress is arguably meta-physical, that is, going beyond nature.

Or, to put it another way, hard-core adaptationists are trying to promulgate a “secularist theology,” or, if you want to nail the hide to the wall with a two-dollar word, what they’re doing is … scientism.

So, on this count, I distrust the mindset of adaptationists for the same reason I have distrusted the quasi-metaphysical mindset of some cosmologists who have insisted that the universe had to be closed — usually to prevent the anti-Progress eternal entropy increase of an open universe.

The universe IS, simply is. It is neither good nor bad. Neither is evolutionary biology good or bad. Therefore, neither one can be said to be progressing toward anything, whether or not a teleological stance is the best to take. And likewise for human nature per se, and the Ev Psych that would try to study it from such a point of view.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

If ensoulment happens at conception, what about identical twins?

I’ve written elsewhere on how the human conception and development process is so fragile that (not counting abortions), only about 50 percent of conceived embryos wind up developing into human babies, and how this ought to cast doubt on the metaphysical validity of the “conception at ensoulment” idea, officially held by the Roman Catholic Church, among others, that a human soul is created at the moment of fertilization of a female egg cell by a male sperm cell.

So, what about identical twins? There’s only one conception.

Do they share a soul? Is that why some people believe twins have (quasi)-telepathic communication with each other?

Or did the “original” soul split when the embryo did? If so, can each “half-soul” develop into a full soul, or do souls need to undergo only mitotic division? But, if a “half-soul” can become a full soul, what’s the smallest bit of soul division that can become a full soul?

What about conjoined (“Siamese”) twins? Does that original soul fully divide, or is it only a partial, incomplete division, like that of the embryo?

What if one conjoined twin is good and one is bad? If the soul doesn’t fully split, can a god send half to heaven and half to hell?

Those of you who regularly read my blogs know I’m a materialist, so I personally don’t think there’s anything to worry about. But maybe Pope Benedict needs to worry about this in between antagonizing Muslims (and don’t tell me he was clueless about what he was reading and what provocation it might seem to be).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology, Dan Dennett, and the supposedly algorithmic nature of evolution

In my previous post about the wrongness of Evolutionary Psychology, after connecting the dots that led to that conclusion, I then started thinking about Dan Dennett’s strong, even vociferous, support for the algorithmic nature of evolution.

Then, further dots connected, as I realized how connected this is to his being a strong adaptationist.

If adaptations cause traits that approach the optimal or even reach it, we can define “the optimal” as a specific point. This, then, gives us something analogous to convergent series in mathmatics, whether geometric or arithmetic series.

One formula for either type of series solves any convergent series.

I don’t know if Dennett — or other strong adaptationists who are also “algorithmists” — have consciously thought of this analogy, but I’m thinking it has had to be floating somewhere in their minds. Even if not, it’s one of the better arguments that I think could be mustered for the algorithmic reduction of evolution.

Well, first of all, I think this is a case of Dennett being hoist by his own petard, found guilty of not reductionism but greedy reductionism.

That, though, is a secondary point.

The main point is that, since adaptationism simply isn’t true, per my previous post, and not only isn’t true, but as quasi-utopian and arguably philosophically idealist isn’t good science, that an algorithmic understanding of evolution that is pinned to adaptationism also fails on both counts.

Evolutionary psychology — adaptationism defined sub specie Leibnitz

Adaptationism: “The Leibnitzian view of how gene-based evolutionary changes produce the optimal development of traits in individuals, therefore individuals as individuals, and secondarily, species composed of groups of such individuals.

Now, no confirmed Ev Psycher may like that definition, but if the shoe fits, that adaptationism claims this is the best of all evolutionarily possible worlds (or nearly so) …

How else can you describe a theory that says most or all traits are optimal adaptations? It’s too bad Gould was too mild-mannered, and neither Eldridge nor Lewontin among others has the pen of a Voltaire to have produced this definition already.

And that is why I am not an Evolutionary Psychologist, although I do certainly consider myself to be some sort of evolutionary psychologist (per Buller).

Another way to look at this, perhaps, is to see that adaptationism, whether specifically put in the service of Ev Psych or not, smacks of utopianism. Materialist utopianism, perhaps; less-than-all utopianism, when compared to religious utopias, dependent on the “omnis” of traditional theology. BUT, utopianism, nonetheless, and arguably a more dangerous utopianism precisely because it’s in the guise of a scientific theory.

Sure, the “optimal development” traits tend toward may be hedged, with “many” or “most.” OK, then I’ll hedge my previous paragraph and call adaptationism quasi-utopian.

Nonetheless, I am an ev psycher, in small letters. I’m a naturalist, it seems clear the brain is the mind (making allowance for neurotransmitter chemicals outside the brain), I believe in evolution, even as details of the neo-Darwinian synthesis get hammered out toward a neo-neo-Darwinian synthesis (influenced by developments in areas such as symbiosis). Anyhow, take a naturalist approach that brain=mind, combine that with an acceptance of evolutionary theory, and QED, the mind must evolve along with the rest of homo sapiens (and other critters).

Just not in the way that Ev Psychers claim, including not “optimally.”

Some critiques of Ev Psych are right; its proponents have sniffed too much Paley, not nearly enough Hume, else they’d be much more skeptical about “optimal” ANYTHING in evolutionary biology.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Shostakovich riffs Mahler

In essence, I hear and feel the Allegretto second movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as Shostakovich doing a scherzo-like parody of a Mahlerian Austrian Ländler slow movement. If you listen to a good interpretation of this symphony, in this movement, you'll soon grasp this.

You should feel a more emphasized version of the rhythm of the Ländler, along with the speed of the Allegretto underscoring this more; that’s where the scherzo part of the interpretation comes in. Beware of overly romanticizing conductors, especially of the “old school,” who take this movement, or Shostakovich in general, too slow.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

More philosophical reflections from my national parks vacation

This is another philosophical/personal development poem whose ideas were generated during my recent vacation to the Pacific Northwest, and specifically to Olympic and Redwood national parks.


BEACHES OF FAITH

Beaches have many sounds.
First, like different snowfalls,
No two beaches sound the same
Under the deadfall of human feet.
At one, the sand screams;
At another, it scrunches.
And that’s just the beach sand,
To say nothing of the different roars
Of breakers and surf on sand and sea stacks.
Dover Beach’s sea of faith
Sounds much different at Olympic or Redwood.
It looks much different, too,
As the gleam of moonset on marine mirrors,
The ocean surge constrained by lurking volcanic headlands,
Brackets questions of ebbing faith within a particular context.
Faith in what? About what? For what? To what end?
The faith of Olympic and Redwood
Is not in, for, or to some transcendentally dead deity.
Rather, it is in a nonmetaphysically eternal recurrence,
That this world, this nature,
Simply IS,
And will be,
But like Heraclitus’ river,
Never will recur the same.
In that, I have faith indeed,
A faith as constant as the ebbing tides’ returning surge,
An Olympian faith for today.

Photography, memory and photographic memory

Ever since the first daguerreotype, analogies have been drawn to people whose memory seems to be photographic in nature and exactitude.

Ignoring the fact that memory doesn’t work that way in general, that both still and video photographers are editors and not passive recorders, and that still and video film, or digital sensors, are less light-sensitive than the human eye — plus the eye’s own extensive editor in the brain — the analogy does still have some thought-priming spinoff value, I believe.

Here’s one part of that.

I take many pictures on a vacation, but less than one-fifth of them make it into my hardcopy photo albums.

In some cases, that’s because I’m shooting 10, 15 or 20 different versions of the same shot, varying shutter speed, depth of field, exposure level, use and amount of fill flash and so forth.

But in other cases, I’m shooting things that I know are “snapshot” level. (I don’t mean that to sound denigrating, but I consider myself a good enough photographer to know I normally shoot better than that.)

Why? Especially when there’s at least some degree of conscious intent in the shot?

I believe it’s a way of using the act of photography — and the time invested — in helping incorporate those particular times of my vacations into long-term memory.

Some thoughts on child abuse recovery counseling, AA, PTSD and related matters

One prescriptive tool a number of these counselors recommend is writing with one’s alternative, non-dominant hand in order to recover one’s “inner child.”

But, does this actually have any benefits?

First, Ph.D. psychologist counselors, as compared to M.D. psychiatrists, let alone Ph.D. neuroscientists and cognitive scientists, aren’t renowned for their attachment to empirical research rather than feel-good theorizing. That’s why I have “inner child,” whether advocated by such counselors, Alcoholics Anonymous members talking about their recovery ideas, or others, in scare quotes.

Personally, and having done moderate or more left-handed writing off an on over the past few years, I doubt it.

First, I think the idea of an “inner child” is a construct. That’s not to say the idea isn’t still useful. Nor is it to say that we don’t have some subself that is more childlike (regular readers have read my numerous posts on the idea of subselves), and that, in at least some persons among people who have had childhood traumas, this subself isn’t larger and more active than in the general populace. But that’s all.

Anyway, to the degree alternate-hand writing accesses a child self construct, even then, it is probably not accessing a lot of unconscious or subconscious thought from this subself. The idea probably works in one of two ways.

Some people may be malleable or pliable enough in personality to un/subconsciously incorporate this idea wholesale from their counselors. In that case, what nondominant writing is accessing is most likely what the people subconsciously thinks their counselors want to hear about their clients’ inner children. In other words, outside of affirmation and “strokes” from a therapist, in these cases, nondominant writing is pretty valueless.

In other cases, though, where people who recognize, whether more subconsciously or consciously, the nature of a “child self” as a construct are involved, they may be able to go with the flow and project this constructed child self into the nondominant hand. That’s likely more valuable, but in this case, then what we are getting is an acted role which our own “daily show” consciousness believes is what this “inner child” is like.

A couple of caveats here, too. First, if one is too conscious about this, any insights will be forced. Second, the insights, as noted, may well be from one’s daily consciousness, and not any interior source.

Now, back to the idea of a “child self” and the idea, promoted in drug and alcohol recovery as well as developmental psychology, that this “child self” gets “frozen” by childhood trauma and never develops. (This leads to some AAers, and possibly some counselors, saying that one must “start again at age 13” or whatever, and then one “recovers at one year per year,” implying the whole person (if there actually is such a thing) is ultimately all behind the age-development curve because of the “frozenness” of this “child self.”

Well, first, I simply don’t believe human development happens that way. Even if a child trauma is great enough to produce some sort of actual, “split” or “partially split” child self, that subself is going to continue to develop, whether up, down or sideways. The deeper it appears to remain “frozen,” it seems more likely this is a subconsciously willed (yes, the subconscious has will) decision than an artifact of the original trauma.

Now, someone else might claim that subconscious willing is itself an artifact of the trauma. I say no.

Rather, it reflects differences in personality types — differences with a fair-sized genetic component, as illustrated by differences in post-traumatic stress disorder susceptibility in adults, to adult traumas.

Neuroscience and cognitive science have demonstrated such differences being reflected in differences in brain architecture in the amygdala and elsewhere. And the genetic research, while still somewhat weak evidentiarily, is coming along.

Hence, treatment such as anti-PTSD drugs, along with new directions in PTSD talk therapy, are important.

Counselors, even especially those leaning heavily on warm fuzzies, need to become cognizant of the research in this area and modify their treatment accordingly. And, armchair psychiatrists in AA and elsewhere need to take a page from Wittgenstein and stop dispensing advice that is not only clueless but potentially harmful, or at least detrimental, if they don’t know, and don’t try to know, what they’re talking about.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Reflections on Redwoods beaches and fog

On of the places I camped while on vacation was in Redwoods National Park’s Nickel Creek primitive campground, less than 100 yards from the ocean, the night of Aug. 3. The glow of a late-night moon seen on that beach, along with a foggy sunrise the next morning, prompted the following extended haiku poem.



REDWOOD BEACHES

Redwood coastal beach
Is serene in moonlight glow
Peaceful, quiet night.

People sleep above
Lulled by crashing breaker roar
Sea-sound lullaby.

Morning comes anew
World wakens as sun rises
Reveals diff’rent beach.

The creamy breakers
Salmon-glow in early morn
With foggy sunlight.

Last-look lingering,
Loath to leave, a parting glance,
I hike up the hill.

Stop and shoulder-glance,
A last trinket of mem’ry
Turn back, trudge once more.

With mem’ry secured,
Painted, not photographic
The essence remains.

— August 8, 2006

Redwoods — trees of living history

The analogy with which I start this poem struck me in the face when I saw a downed redwood in Muir Woods National Monument Sunday.


REDWOOD HISTORY LESSON

Like a phonograph
Awaiting a needle for playback,
The trunks of fallen redwoods
Have music to play.

Of course, the needle is already there,
Attached to the living tree
The playback only has live stereo sound
When played live, or alive.

Please don’t cut the redwoods.
Living history is more than just a figure of speech.

— August 8, 2006

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Two observations on religion from the national parks

I saw two conspicuous examples of religion in national parks while on vacation, both disconcerting, but for different reasons.

Both were in California’s redwoods country.

The first, in a coastal section of Redwoods National Park, was a cross about 6 feet high, made out of two pieces of steel I-beam. The cross appears to have no historical significance itself, nor does it commemorate a historically significant site; no marker, plaque or other object is at the site.

The second, at the adjacent Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, was a string of Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around a redwood fern. New Ageism (assuming an Ager and not a Tibetan lama left the string of flags) no more should be commemorated in national parks than orthodox Christianity. Plus, leaving prayer flags like that is, by legal definition, littering.

New Agers have been angering American Indians by doing this at places like Sedona for years. Stop it.

Besides, it’s metaphysically illogical. If you’re really into “detachment” as a metaphysical principal, it’s illogical to consider one place “sacred” over another; in so doing, you “attach” to that place.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Thoughts from Olympus

Written while hiking in Olympic National Park:

Mount Olympus stands enshrouded,
Wrapped in a wreath of cloud.
Pull back the cumuli, and what do you see?

No throne, no thunderbolt, no Zeus.
The gods have fled Olympus,
And Sinai and Sagarmatha,
Because we have pulled back the veils,
Exposed the Most Holy Places
And revealed what was never there.

Look closely at the peak, in the glacial ice.
See how it mirrors yourself,
As it always did.

I'm baackkk

From a jam-packed 11-day trip to the Pacific Northwest. I'll post some comments in the next 48 hours or so, after I get caught up to speed on knocking out this week's issue of the old newspaper.

Got one poem completed during the trip, one in the hopper and ideas for two others. Look for at least some of them here within a week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The “ineffability” argument for the existence of god — the modern-world version of the “god of the gaps” — yet another logical failure

A stout charge, indeed. How do I justify it?

First, as a recent discussion board at Pharyngula has demonstrated, “ineffability” appears to be the holdout of the modern ardent theist, one who may well accept some version of evolutionary theory and a Big Bang-dated age and proximate cause of the universe, but still believes in a theistic creator behind it all.

Such a person will often claim, as part of his or her defense of theism, that “emotion/aesthetic value/value judgment A” is ineffable. The first minor premise of the syllogism (not long enough to be a sorities) is that something ineffable cannot have a naturalistic cause. Intermediate conclusion is therefore that ineffability is a mark of supernaturalism. The second minor premise is obviously that a cause that transcends nature has a final cause in a theistic creator. (Note: The same claim and chain or argumentation may be made, and is, about morality or ethics, but as the discussion at Pharyngula focused on appreciation of the arts and enjoyment of nature, I don’t want to lose a tight focus.)

But, this argument has a number of holes in it, both from definitions and from strength of reasoning. Let’s read through them, from left to right in the argumental chain, both warrants and reasoning at the same time.

First, the whole question of what it means for something to be “ineffable” must be examined carefully. In part, ineffability is, per modern theories a mind, an issue of private mental states. Ergo, what is ineffable for you may well NOT be ineffable for me. Therefore, to sound scholastic, ineffability is a particular, not a universal. Under general standards of informal logic, if one particular instance of ineffability can be shown (with reasonable scientific polling/sampling work) to be ineffable for less than 50 percent of people, then the ineffability argument, at least for this particular class of ineffable mental states, is invalid.

The second problem is the failure to recognize the temporal specificity of many ineffable mental states. In short, what is ineffable today for John Doe or Jane Roe may well not be so tomorrow. Again, the 50 percent rule holds true — if “ineffable mental state A” eventually becomes effable for more than 50 percent of the people in such a state, the argument is invalid.

The third factor involves human psychology. Contrary to such rationalist standard-bearers as the associates of the Cato Institute and other denizens of modern political libertarianism, humans by and large aren’t rational economic actors. Economists from the generally libertarian-touted University of Chicago have taken the lead in painstaking demonstrating this.

Political angle aside, and the “brights” nomenclature of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins aside as well, we homo sapiens aren’t that rationalistic about a lot of our behaviors.

Where is this headed?

Well, the person who believes that Event A is ineffable, or, as I phrase it, the person who is in mental state of ineffability, is usually acting emotionally. Ergo, he or she may not be conducive to rational persuasion. Now, even in informal logic, one probably can’t assign percentages of truth value to such ineffable belief except in the roundest of numbers. However, there’s probably enough evidence to list this as no better than weakly inductive.

Next, we have a question of epistemology, one in which “ineffabologists” are eventually hoist on their own first-minor-premise petard. For, if ineffable experiences ultimately have a supernatural cause, then how can “ineffability” be defined in terms amenable to naturalistic explanation, discussion and analysis?

Oops.

Acceptance of the first minor presence as essential to the argument automatically lifts it out of the world of science.

In short, this “argument from ineffability” that appears to developing into more a stock of trade is as logically invalid as its many predecessors.

Friday, June 16, 2006

An open letter to Fred Bronstein: Why I didn’t renew my Dallas Symphony Orchestra season tickets

First, I was in the audience at the particular concert in the 2004-05 season when you announced special anniversary events would be a major part of the 2005-06 calendar.

An avid listener to a variety of 20th-century music, my mind first thought of the Shostakovich centennial, since he was born in 1906.

Rather, you were talking about the Mozart 250th birth anniversary.

Now, people who don’t know any classical music recognize Mozart, I guess, kind of like the tone-deaf Ulysses S. Grant who said he recognized two tunes: “One of them is Yankee Doodle and the other isn’t.”

I thought I would hold onto hope for 2006-07, that you would do a centennial observance for Shostakovich then. (And a centennial, bicentennial, tricentennial trumps any half-centennial in my book anyway.)

No such luck.

That was reason alone to not renew after five years, especially when I e-mailed you and somebody on your staff spit out a defensive pile of mush response.

Second, the playlist has gotten more conservative over the years. Dallas is musically conservative, but not that musically conservative, in my opinion. Besides, isn’t part of the job of a music director, and by extension, a symphony executive, to educate and enlighten the public about music, including if it’s ignorant of some aspects of modern music?

Third, the playlist has also gotten repetitive. Multiple playings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel, the Brahms First, etc., when a post-1918 Stravinsky symphony, or one by Myaskovsky, or one by Hindemith, let alone one by Honegger or Ernst Krenek, can’t get played. You won’t even play the “tunal” (not tonal in a traditional sense, but “tunal”), and even pop-ish Alan Hovhaness, for Pete’s sake.

Fourth, although I’m not an Andrew Litton fan (the man, no matter what he thinks of himself, butchers Mahler more than he gets him right), the final months before his departure were poorly handled, and deliberately so on your part, I would be inclined to believe.

Don’t expect me back unless I see clear evidence of change.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

How often human conception fails

So, what happens to that soul that supposedly is formed at conception if conception has a 50 percent failure rate?

First, yes you read that right. Conception has a 50 percent failure rate of actually producing a living baby, if not more than that.

First, about one-quarter of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterine wall.

So, we’re down to 75 percent.

Of that number, about one-third are spontaneously aborted, usually due to great genetic abnormalities, in the first six weeks after conception.

(Many women will miss a period, think maybe they’re pregnant, then have what seems to be a late period with heavy bleeding. It’s not a period; it’s a spontaneous abortion.)

That takes us down to 50 percent. Throw in later-pregnancy miscarriages, and we’re below that mark.

But, if we follow the line of good conservative Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, etc. (but not Orthodox Jews — if you read the Torah on pregnancy and from it argue to soul implantation, boys are soulless until the 40th day of a pregnancy and girls until the 80th day) God is putting souls in a lot of embryos that never make it to the fetus stage of development, let alone birth.

Sounds like a pretty spendthrift, let alone cruel and capricious, deity to me.

What if we posit a divinity that ensouls a human body at the moment of birth? I counter, what if that baby dies a day later? Or a minute? You’ve again got a Numero Uno wildly and extravagantly scattering soul-seed like ryegrass for fall grass cover. It’s kind of like the illogic of Aristotle’s Prime Mover argument with reverse temporality direction.

And, you so-called “liberal Christians” and others, where does your version of ensoulment in particular, and metaphysical dualism in general, square with this?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Consciousness and its disillusionments

Is consciousness all that it’s cracked up to be? For example, even if Dan Dennett’s explanation of consciousness in “Consciousness Explained” is correct, what of it?

If, to riff on the New Age urban legend that we only use 10 percent of our brains, it turns out that only 10 percent of our mental activity is conscious, then Dennett hasn’t explained very much.

But, the idea that much of our mental activity is unconscious is scary to many people. This includes not just John and Jane Does, but many educated people and even a certain amount of cognitive scientists. It’s of a partial piece, at least, with fears over the lack of free will. On that subject, note that even a Dennett, while denying the existence of a Cartesian Central Meaner, has spilled ink enough for two whole books illogically continuing to defend the existence of free will.

Some parts of fears of unconscious mental behavior touch on its free will aspects. A fair amount do. Probably the second biggest fear behind worries about unconscious mental activity is the risk that humans will look more, well, animalistic.

And that’s precisely what “The New Unconscious” addresses. Editors Ran Hassin, James Uleman and John Bargh have selected some of the best in research analysis and other writings on the definition, parameters and role of the unconscious mind as currently understood by cognitive science.

Without any of its authors putting percentages on conscious versus unconscious mental activity, the cognitive science essays collected here ask — and in large degree answer — just what all is happening in our minds out of the reach of our own selves.

Does subliminal programming work? Yes, to a moderate to modest extent, depending on the exact goals of specific subliminal ideas. At the same time, no, if it’s on New Ageish self-help audio tapes; to the degree subliminal programming works, it works far better with visual than with audio programming.

Related to that, do various forms of unconscious priming — such as priming one toward certain emotional or belief states, or reinforcing old ones — work? The answer is a pretty strong yes. Sometimes, as in how racial attitudes can be effective, this is somewhat scary, yet challenging to national issues of sociology, indicating that at least some change in racial attitudes in America is in fact, pardon the pun, only skin deep.

Can unconscious thoughts and processes be controlled? The answer appears to be yes. Does this mean we have unconscious free will? The authors of the main study in this area of the book say yes. They don’t answer, though, how that would square with the absence of a Central Meaner, and whether it might not imply an Unconscious Central Meaner. I say it does, until the authors further develop their idea. However, that’s just their theory of unconscious free will. Unless one believes that lack of a conscious central meaner is some weird form of an emergent property, I don’t see how unconscious free will, let alone an implied unconscious Cartesian Meaner, can actually exist. I charge that they don’t, and that Jack Glaser and John Kihlstrom need to do more work.

But that’s not all in here. Tying in to Malcolm Gladwell, the relative accuracy of thin-slice, quick-slice judgments of other people has been clinically upheld.

The power of assimilating to other people’s mannerisms and becoming unconscious mimics has also been demonstrated. Ditto on mimicry of emotional affect, similarity judgments and other things.

Our minds are less our own than we thought.

Of course, with no Cartesian Meaner, they’re really not “our” minds anyway.

Another way to look at this honestly is as Timothy D. Wilson says in “Strangers to Ourselves”:
When (Freud) said that consciousness is the tip of the iceberg, he was short of the mark by quite a bit — it may be more the size of a snowball on top of that iceberg.

Or, in my own words, you and I are not who we think we are; above all, since, like Ivory Soap, our minds are 99 and 44/100 percent unconscious, we can’t think who we are because it’s inaccessible.

Meanwhile, Jim Grigsby and David Stevens provide some parallel lines of thought in their “Neurodynamics of Personality.”

At one point, they refer to D.M. Buss, who says consciousness may just be a spandrel. In other words, it may just be an evolutionary byproduct of some evolutionary guided process for some other facet of mental development, i.e., consciousness itself was not evolutionarily selected.

Their own thoughts on the self is that there is no such thing as a unitary self; rather, a la some ideas of William James:
“The ‘self’ is actually composed of a large number of (often overlapping) internal representations of who one takes oneself to be.”

From there, I infer they are thinking along the lines of cognitive philosopher Dennett’s “multiple drafts” theory of consciousness. The internal representation that best survives the Darwinian mental battle (to riff on Dennett) and is most adapted for the psychological development space at that moment, is who we are at that time. William James, from a different perspective, was thinking somewhat along those lines when he talked of different social selves; however, he did not incorporate the idea of internal representations affecting selfhood.

And, speaking of Dennett …

One of Grigsby’s and Stevens’ most important statements goes contrary to the sometimes humdrum right, sometimes brilliantly right, sometimes humdrum wrong, and sometimes quite brilliantly wrong Dennett. They stress that, contra Dennett, the human mind is notalgorhithmic; in other words, in terms of cognitive science, different types of software may not be mappable onto different types of hardware.


Note: The specific aspects of study of the unconscious mind covered in this book relate closely to several posts on this blog with the common thread of “Who Am I,” all arguing that selfhood is less unitary than our conscious minds would have us believe, and also less under conscious control.

See here for parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Go to the oak tree, go to the salt flat

“Go to the ant, you sluggard,” the biblical book of Proverbs advises the lazy-minded.
While not doubting that the lazy-minded exist in modern-day America, I know the opposite problem is more likely. What to do?

“Go to the oak tree, you harried and hurried-minded,” I would advise.

On the south side of our DeSoto office, we have a nice bur oak tree. It’s relatively young, but not so young as to not be able to put a quantity of the nice-sized acorns that earn it its name.
Between its leaves, among the largest of oak trees’ foliage, and the large-sized, larger-capped namesake acorns, bur oaks have very visible signs of growth. And that’s the basis for my adage.
In spring, with those large leaves, as over the past couple of weeks, it’s possible to easily observe day-to-day growth. And I do.

I usually park my car near or beneath the tree. (With our recent spate of record-smashing temperatures, I look for the possibility of “beneath” parking every day.)

So, I get a chance — and remember to take the chance — to stop a few seconds and look at the tree’s growth. Ditto in late fall, as I watch how the acorns mature each day, then drop from the tree. (Given the size of bur oak acorns, at this time of year, the parking option is definitely “near” and not “beneath.” I don’t need an oak tree to inflict the equivalent of light hail damage on my car.)

In either case, the slow steady growth of the oak in its leaves, or the slow steady output of its acorns, shows that slow and steady is still an important part of the world around us, if not for our own selves.

This holds true not just with a bur oak, but with spring in general.

I walk my neighborhood in Lancaster almost every day. In early-to-mid-February, I start looking at the trees on the streets, wondering which will be the first to start budding each year and when.
Going by the trees, will it be an early or a late spring?

After the first tree, what’s next?

I do the same thing at Ten Mile Creek Nature Park. Here, I will look at the different species. When will the first bois d’arc start budding? The first pecan?

And likewise in fall. When will the first pecans start forming? How long will it be until the first one falls and hits the ground?

I don’t always practice what I preach on living life in the slower lane, I’ll confess. I sometimes try to cram in too much time web surfing, attempt to cram 25 hours into 24-hour days and otherwise let myself get wound up too tightly.

That’s why this message is for me as well as for you, dear readers. But, sometimes, I do practice what I preach.

While on vacation a month ago, on my next to last day full day out, I was driving through the Mojave Desert of southern California, along a now-decommissioned section of Route 66. I then turned off to go south to Joshua Tree National Park. Just south of the junction, a series of salt flats, backdropped by mountain ranges, stretches to the horizon.

I stopped to take pictures of the geometric structure of the salt flats; another car had already done so. (For me, it was a chance to play with my ultrawide lens, to boot.)

But, after I had my fill of shooting, I realized that, especially with somewhat overcast weather, I was in no hurry to get to Joshua Tree. So, on a warmish 80-degree day, I took an hour on the flats to sit and meditate. I felt years younger after I got done.

The point is, sometimes, we may need to do more than just slow our lives down, we may need to sit and stop, however each of us does that.

Go to the oak tree? At times, it may be go to the desert.
The solitude and vastness of the desert will always put the rest of life in perspective, if we let it. Is it any wonder that religious and spiritual leaders, and some of history’s great artists as well, have found inspiration in the desert places?

Note: I appreciate people who have told me they like hearing about my travels and seeing my pictures. My latest are online in my Yahoo photo albums are here. I have a number of folders titled “2006 spring vacation” then the particular geographic site appended to the folder name. Pictures include a mating pair of American avocets wading in a shallow pool on the salt flats, a desert bighorn in Grand Canyon and several desert and red rock sunset and storm cloud pictures.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why I haven't posted here recently

This:

is part of why.

This is from the South Kaibab trail in Grand Canyon, a little over half a trail mile or so, and about 500 vertical feet, below the South Rim.

I was on vacation the second half of March, getting ready for it before then, and spending a fair amount of my free time for two weeks afterward editing photos, more of which are on my Yahoo profile.

This vacation definitely had its philosophical/personal growth/spiritual moments. One of the biggest of them was spending nearly a full hour meditating on a salt flat in the Mojave Desert. I felt almost five years younger when I finally got up.

Nature, and great nature photography opportunities like the one above, are similiarly "spiritual," in my secular way of understanding the word "spiritual(-ity)."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Waxing poetic, philosophical and literary on selfhood

Note: This is the sixth part in a semi-regular series of posts about selfhood and related issues of cognitive philosophy. For more, see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Many poets have written about time and its flow, from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare and beyond.

I don’t claim to be old myself, and unlike an occasional “I’m getting old” column that today’s younger editorial staffers at my newspaper company have thrown up on its pages in the psat, I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not.

However, although I’m not getting old, I am getting older. And since I’m on the far side of 40, I think I can offer a little comment on that.

Bear with me, those of you who like poetry, and literary allusions, through a poetic dialogue between myself and poets and authors of the past, and between Shakespeare and others of those poets and authors.

I loathe growing older,
And the way life,
With its past choices made and not made,
Python-like encoils my existential freedom.

I hate the constriction
Of a funnel-like previous history
Flowing downward into an ever-narrowing future
Which can often appear drain-like;
A metaphor with less than the most pleasant implications for tomorrow.

Ah, yes, tomorrow.
What was it Shakespeare said about tomorrow?
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty place from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools,
The way to dusty death.”

Shakespeare knew.
He knew constriction.
The pettiness of that eternally recurring tomorrow,
The tableau of the anti-Proustian “Envisioning of Things Future,”
Produces not humility, but caution, restraint, tentativeness, apprehension.
Apprehension, yes, that’s it.
An apprehension of taking steps too big,
Lest I walk out on a fragile limb,
Getting stuck, cat-like, in the tree of life.
Eliot knew that apprehension,
Where a life measured in coffee spoons often results.

And yet, I appreciate the freedom of maturity
Even while I loathe the responsibility it entails, nay demands.
And struggle to live with, and embrace, the dichotomy.

But the future can also be expansive.
With songs of ourselves (do I not feel as brash as Whitman to sing of myself alone?) to be sung across seas of grass and time and space,
And across starless nighttime voids of the soul,
Yawning within, with their own expansiveness.

Who is this “I” to sing of himself?
“Who am I?” asked Dickinson.
Am I nobody, and you?
Or can we sing ourselves as somebodies?
“Who am I,” I ask, just like Dickinson.

Shakespeare admonishes again:
“To thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not be false to any man.”
Indeed, as he would have doubting, brooding Hamlet know,
Thou canst not be false to thyself if you but know it.
We hope.

But know myself?
Far back in the dust of history, beyond Shakespeare,
The ancient oracle of Delphi urges just that:
“Know thyself.”
And if I don’t?
If it is not possible?
Who is it that is making these choices that the world says are mine?

And the Bard saw true here as well, asking us whether that self that trods through life
Is but really walking the boards in front of the footlights,
But playing a part, or different parts for different stages, scenes and acts of life.

Is that me, or but a role that you see,
A convenience, a contrivance of my self to fit the scene,
To fit the clamor of the world around, or the madding crowd?
Do you know? Do I?

I don’t claim to have the answers for all of these questions,
To have asked the right questions,
Or even to have asked enough questions,
Enough to … know myself … very well.

At least, maybe I’ll buy some new, larger coffee spoons,
And stamp my name on them.

Perhaps I’ll brew a pot, and lift a cup high to old Will,
If he has been himself, and I myself.
Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
The word, like his “tomorrow,”
Can creep in this petty place from day to day.
Or not.
If only old Will had ever met Prince Siddhartha.

To thine own self be content, as well as true,
Or the closest you can;
And when you toe the mark, and exclaim your lines,
Accept them as your own, the best you can.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Calling all music police: round up the Bernstein-Beethoven recordings

About five years ago, I got home one evening from somewhere, and turned on WRR, the Dallas classical radio station.

I immediately recognized the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I shortly thereafter recognized that this was probably the worst interpretation I ever heard.

Like watching a train wreck, mesmerized, I had to listen to the end to see who was conducting.

I found out it was Leonard Bernstein, specifically his fall of the Berlin Wall epic performance, if I may use the word “epic” loosely. (I had never heard it before.)

He had everything wrong, in my opinion — tempos, phrasings, nuances of dynamics, you name it.

Since that time, I have occasionally heard other Beethoven recordings of his on the radio, and I am convinced of one thing.

Lenny was clueless about Beethoven. Period.

So, I suggest we deputize some music police, confiscate every Bernstein recording of Beethoven, and destroy them all.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hey, is there anybody in there?

Who am I? Am I somebody? Am I an illusion? A collection of sub-somebodies? And, to borrow language from economics, how fungible is the sense of self after brain injury?

Science News tackles the latest in these issues here.

Mahler: the anti-Beethoven

How’s that?

Mahler’s first symphony clearly exhibits signs of being written as a deliberate aheroic, or even antiheroic, counterpoint to Beethoven’s Eroica.

How’s that?

First, the title of Mahler’s First: “Titan.” Selected by Mahler itself, and not at all modest for the title of a composer’s first symphony, it deliberately plays off Beethoven’s Eroica. Yet, unlike that work, it contains no dedication to a particular person nor was it ever written with that end in mind.

But the real anti-Beethoven, aheroic strains come out in the funeral march.

Those familiar with the symphony know that the theme of the march is the popular nursery rhyme “Frere Jacques,” suitable retarded, and put in the minor key. A nursery rhyme is anything but march-like. And the daily routine of a 4- or 5-year-old child is anything but heroic, let alone martial. The child in his mundane, everyday world, slowed down in sadness — the sadness that anticipates the Kindertotenlieder — is the Titan of Mahler’s symphonic world.

There are no heroes, and certainly not in a romantic sense, for Mahler’s musical canvas. And he is telling us that.

The theme continues, in my opinion. The resurrection of the Resurrection Symphony is not heroic in the sense of, say, Handel’s Messiah. And for Mahler, a converted Jew who had little formal religious connection, such heroism was not to be found there anyway. Resurrection was a wistful possibility for him, not a concrete certainty.

And the bombast of the Third, no matter how loudly or longly played, cannot force heroism. Nor does the tenderness of the Romantic, the Fourth, have a heroic edge to it.

Returning to the purely instrumental, the Fifth seems to hit a note of quiet resignation. The Sixth is known as the Tragic and its antiheroism speaks for itself through that moniker.

The Seventh? If I were to be naming Mahler symphonies, the would be the Pensive. Certainly not heroic.

The Eighth? Does the Veni, Creator Spiritus triumph over the Faust first movement? If so, the triumph is not a human one — it is purely spiritual and purely abstract.

That takes us to the Ninth, completed as Mahler’s life ebbed away, mired in the pain of knowing he had an unfaithful wife. The answer of this symphony is not a heroic rage against either physical restriction and decay on one hand, or lovlessness and faithlessness on the other. Rather, it is a degree of resignation greater, broader, deeper and more worn-out at end than the Fifth.

And finally, the Tenth, begun and unfinished as Mahler approached his deathbed. The death-knocks of the bass drum speak for themselves; stated firmly, if anything is heroic in this symphony, it is death itself.

Existential thoughts on Camus

I’m rereading Camus – currently on "The Stranger." As I was out for a walk tonight in what is really “normal” temperature but felt briskly chilly compared to what we’ve been having this year, I remembered, nearly verbatim, his lines in Mersault’s mouth on the last pages:

“For the first time, in that night alive with signs and starts, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world.” The world cares not whether I am alive or dead and has no world-soul to care, anyway. That thought can be either depressing or gladdening, I realized, depending one what mindset I bring to that thought in advance, what feelings and beliefs I am seeking to be confirmed or denied, and so forth. I felt vaguely but reassuringly comforted by that fact.

And how had Camus reached this point?

“As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope,” he says just before the words above. Raw emotion, when undenied, can get us to bedrock within ourselves. I take Camus as saying he has been rid of the hope of false delusions, such as the delusion that the world really gives a damn about Mersault.
And so we go on.

“Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and was happy again.” Mersault is one with himself after getting stripped of his self-delusions. And so, in a nonmetaphysical way, he can experience a certain degree of oneness with the world at large, as a relative of some sort.

And that leads us to Mersault’s final lines, where Camus lets us know that the homo existentialis always remains in at least partial control of his own emotional fate, if not his physical fate.

“For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I only had to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

Monday, February 06, 2006

Youth, violence and video games — a personal angle

One of my coworkers was talking in a joking way this morning about how her husband has been playing Grand Theft Auto with their 2-year-old son. She was laughing at describing how he’s learning to “kill hookers.”

I don’t think it’s funny, given that enough evidence exists connecting video game violence and childhood development that she and her husband are setting the child up for later-life aggressive tendencies. But I don’t know what, if anything, to say.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Is Mozart overrated?

Well, it's officially here — it’s the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth Saturday, and all the attendant hyperbole and hoopla will get an official kickoff. I’m suggesting it’s not all warranted.

I own nearly 500 classical CDs and can count my Mozart CDs on the fingers of my two hands. He doesn't make the Top 10 of my classical composer playlist. He's certainly not No. 1 or 2. And who is that Top 10? ...

Going by sevens, my Top Seven are Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. My Second Seven would be Handel, Schubert, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, Schnittke, Penderecki, and Elliott Carter, I believe. That second seven is not as written in stone, but Mozart would not make the top seven at all.

Oh, by the way, some of you Mozart idolators might need to listen to some 20th century classical music. Start with the last three I listed. Add some Ernst Krenek. Throw in some late, serialist Stravinsky.

Child prodigy/voluminous output by itself does not make a genius. Saint-Saens was also a child prodigy; why does nobody discuss him like Mozart?

If you pressed me, there are two -- and only two -- must-have works of his; the Symphony No. 40 and the Requiem.

Otherwise, much of his early work was dilletantish salon music.

That said, here in Dallas, the Fine Arts Chamber Players is having a special at the Dallas Museum of Art Saturday. I'll be there.

It's free, and I never say no to free classical music.

Oh, and if you want a classical music birth anniversary to celebrate, circle Sept. 23 on your calendars. That will be the centennial of Shostakovich's birth.

More next week on details of why I think Mozart has gotten to be overrated; it's embargoed for now, as it's my newspaper column for next week.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Who’s hurt, and who’s diseased?

“I’m messed up, and I might mess you up.”

And where have I heard those lines before?
After more than seven years, I still remember.
I still remember Cathey’s self-defense
Cathey’s self-defense that made her sound diseased.

Sound diseased, though, isn’t the same as “felt diseased,” and
Felt diseased is the way I felt
I felt like I was a disease carrier
Carrier of something that could hurt her.

Hurt her? Maybe I could. Maybe I was too close,
Too close to the heart, too close to the defenses,
Defenses that were stout, but perhaps brittle with age,
Brittle with age, with heartache and more.

Age, heartache, and more?
I pulled punches seven years ago, trying to prevent,
To prevent Cathey from running, though I had no chance,
Once she saw I might be serious, though I tried to hide it, she was gone.

Gone? No? Memories of her are still there, and my actions,
My actions seven years ago, from which I learned,
Learned not to do the same thing again,
Again, as I face the same situation, or what seems same or similar.

Similar in situation, but not in response?
If she doesn’t want to share the hurt with me, then I can’t
Can’t continue to share my degree of yearning
Yearning and burning can’t be camouflaged.

I won’t camouflage one thing:
I’m not diseased and I’m not fragile.
Not fragile as china, to be boxed and padded away,
Boxed and padded away, out of sight, sound and mind.

We can’t talk

We can’t talk right now;
She is working on issues and pains
From a past relationship
And says she doesn’t want to hurt me.

I understand, I think, but I don’t like it;
I sympathize, but still yearn,
Yearn for her to change her mind,
And sooner, rather than later.

I feel like my emotions are on hold,
An interest, a budding hope and more,
Waiting, waiting, waiting;
Can't she see the “urgent” on her caller ID?

I wish I could make her understand
That, even if I am projecting my emotions
Onto an unseen her, never yet met,
This is more than normal interest.

But, she doesn’t want to hurt me.
She makes it sound as if she is a carrier
Of the latest exotic disease,
And afraid of infecting me.

Please, hang up the phone on the past.
Get the call blocking for that unwanted caller.
Put me on speed dial. Give me a call.
I'm not afraid of your emotional pain.

I want you.
I want you to talk.
I want you to
Talk to me.

But don’t wait,
Because I won’t
Wait
That long.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I didn’t know he was turning 100; that must have been good drugs indeed

LSD inventor/discoverer Albert Hoffman, due to hit the century mark Jan. 11, reminisced about his discovery and its implications.

Jokes aside, of course, many people turned to LSD as a gateway to spiritual experiences, reputed to be better than mescaline and normally with fewer physical side effects.

Hoffman points out its trials in psychoanalytical work, which of course brings in one Dr. Timothy Leary. Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson tried it (in between his séances) and thought it could be used to fight addictions.

But, the spiritual experience is there without LSD (or mescaline, or psilocybin). I’ve undergone self-hypnosis, years ago, and gotten “deep” enough to see spiraling mandala patterns, getting ever brighter as I focused on them, spinning more rapidly, and eventually becoming — a tunnel.

Yes, I was on the pathway to one of the most commonly cited phenomena of a near-death experience. NDE, meet LSD. Both of you, meet brain hardwiring.

At the end of the interview, Hoffman sounds like a New Ager himself, when asked what LSD did for his understanding of death:
When asked if the drug had deepened his understanding of death, he appeared mildly startled and said no. “I go back to where I came from, to where I was before I was born, that's all,” he said.

Well, ’twould be nice if it were true, but since there is no “I” after death (and, arguably, no single “I” while we’re alive), nobody’s going noplace, acid or not.

And, speaking of that (and read my posts here, here, and here) just who was going anywhere on those acid trips, anyway?

This could explain bar pick-ups

Duke University Medical Center researchers have found that alcohol has less of an effect on rats during estrus.

The research shows that alcohol has less neurotransmitter effect on female rats in estrus.
When tipsy females were at their most nimble, during their pre- and postestrous states, the ethanol had 10% less impact on neurotransmitter activity than it did on the drunken males' neurotransmitters. These results suggest that the gender gap in alcohol behavior may have to do with how hormones play into both gender-related and estrous cycle-related changes in central nervous system excitability, the team reports this month in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Given that we know human females generally have a higher sexual drive during their cycles, the fact that they are less affected by alcohol could have several implications.

    Wide-eyed women can be more choosy at the bar as drunken males slobber on them.
    Women can remain in control of sexual situations during their period.
    Women should be careful of their drinking levels when they are not in their period.
    Speculatively, would bisexual women be more straight or more lesbian in their tendencies during their period, seeing other relatively sober women?
~

Friday, January 06, 2006

Ruminations on Rousseau

This comes after reading the generally excellent new biography: "Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius," by Leo Damrosch.

I say generally excellent with the one noteable exception that Damrosch protests too much against the idea that JJR was a quasi-totalitarian in "The Social Contract" with his famous quote, “Whoever refuses to obey the general will must be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing else than that they will force him to be free.

Sorry, Leo, but that IS totalitarian. If people don't know individually how to be free in and of themselves, how can can a general will worth following ever be established?


=======

No matter; here is the longer, philosophical and literary rumination on the life and ideas of Jean-Jaques Rousseau.

Monsieur Rousseau — I understand and empathize with the traumas of your childhood, including your mother’s post-childbirth death, your father’s estrangement from his in-laws and his greed for your inheritance, his casting off of you and your brother, and above all, your disciplining at the hands of Mlle Lambercier and its induced arousal at the age of 11, and your early seduction by Mme de Warens at the age of 16, and your repulsion of that.

I can understand how the enticement of discipline at the hands of a woman — the first grown woman in your life — caused arousal only to be followed by the raising of fear, nay, terror, even, of sex in the arms of a woman, with seduction by the next grown woman in your life.

I can understand how with genetic, or natural, traits that you recognized are individual to each person as a child, you would be so sensitive. I can understand how your childhood upbringing intensified the expression of those traits.

But I cannot understand how, being so sensitive, you could wear your emotions on the sleeve of your coat. I even more cannot understand how you seemed to do this even more the older you got, despite your growing distrust of the philosophes and others of the intellectual and political establishment, knowing well — or so your “Julie” and “Emile” would have us think — your own temperament. A degree of reserve, even if not that of Hume, to be unburdened later, would have served you much better. A Socratic self-restraint, if you will.

I also cannot understand how, in all of the rest of your largely accurate self-analysis, you could not see the roots of your later paranoia arising from that sensitivity, especially with you wearing it openly.

And, to the degree the paranoia became an affected cloak, I cannot understand how you did not notice that oversensitivity, and your indulgence of it, in your “Confessions.” An Enlightenment program for self-improvement, a la Monsieur Franklin, but still retaining what was good and pure of the uniqueness of your character in this area, might have been good. Or, if you deliberately passed over in silence this hypersensitivity being an affectation, at least in part, I call you on this hypocrisy.

And, I point out a more noticeable hypocrisy. You very publicly deigned not to accept stipends from nobles and royalty later in life, but never inquired about what the rent might be at all of their houses, chateaux, and estates in which you stayed. Eh, bien? Monsieur knows that those do not cost nothing, yet does not mention paying for them while staying for months or even years.

Monsieur, I do see much that was good in both your thinking and feeling. You deserved better than what you got from Diderot, from Grimm, and above all from that dog Voltaire, who obviously was riven with jealousy of your deeper insights.

But, as you may have vaguely alluded at times, you often made yourself unrespectable by kicking against people who wanted to help you — who liked you.

And what of Thérèse? Not only could you not be as effusive of the intellectual and social development of women as those despised philosophes, you would not tutor her your mistress, nor move beyond her for someone of more intellect and let her life a quieter life in peace.

So, no, monsieur, you are not to be as respected as your most ardent defenders, either.

But, you are to be pitied, pitied indeed for a tormented spirit whose hair shirt you could never totally escape. I empathize, and so I pity.