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.