Sunday, February 26, 2012

He died at fifty


That’s what a memorial said aboard the old-time train.
No cause of death listed.
Just that he died at fifty.
Did he feel old? Worn-out?
Or did he just … die unexpectedly?
Sometimes, at age forty-eight
I feel “older,” at least,
And definitely worn-out on occasion.
Especially recently.
Internalizing criticism,
When it’s not totally valid
Or overblown relative to the situation,
Can do that to a person,
Especially one sensitive in general
(Though not perfect
About being sensitive to others)
And sensitive to yelling in particular,
As well as sensitive to crazy-making.

What if he, too, finally just wore out?
It’s one thing to die young, or younger,
It’s another yet to die younger
With the end of one’s life
Becoming one massive burden.
And nobody noticed, and he said nothing
Until too late.

What if that’s me?
– Feb. 26, 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

4 strands of biology, sociology, economics, philosophy connect

The four strands? Competitiveness in general, capitalism, Pop Evolutionary Psychology and social Darwinism.

Regular readers know that I’ve recently written about No. 4, including listing one candidate most wouldn’t put there. I’ve regularly written about Pop Ev Psych and its largely unscientific, occasionally pseudoscientific claims; I’ve been wary of it even when less liberal than I am now, so this is not driven by political issues.

I am that liberal, though … left-liberal of a sort for America, at least. So, in various ways, I’ve definitely written about No. 2, capitalism?

No. 1, competitiveness, somewhat ties all the others together.

Evolution by natural selection does involve a degree of competitiveness, to be sure. However, that competitiveness is usually against members of other species, more than members of one’s own species. To the degree there is intraspecific competition, it’s often sexual selection that’s the driver. That said, at the same time, group selection can be a driver for collaboration with other members of the same species.

So, that’s biology. Pop Ev Psych is sociology, primarily in what it says about its adherents. Ditto for social Darwinism (the fourth modern variety of social Darwinism, New Atheism, has many libertarian adherents, and yes, adherents is the right word). Capitalism is obviously a matter of economics.

Philosophy? Trying to extrapolate from the biological basis of and need for competitiveness to the other three gets us to Davie Hume’s famous is-ought distinction. (It’s worth noting that, in my opinion, many people who claim that Hume’s comments on this are misconstrued, misinterpreted, wrongly implied, etc., have personal reasons for stating this; see ox, whose and goring.)

Just because we have to fight to escape a lion (or per the old joke, run faster than a companion also seeking to escape it) doesn’t mean that Wall Street plutocracy, Pop Ev Psych “just so” stories and the beliefs behind them, or the social Darwinism of either New Atheism or old-time religion has to be that way.

Because it doesn’t.

And, this is part of why the American education system is problematic, and not just K-12 education.

I don’t think I am overstating matters when I say 90 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with Hume’s is-ought distinction. And that’s sad. Hume is one of the most “approachable,” largely non-technical, philosophers in modern, or even modern plus ancient, philosophical history.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Consciousness is not the same as attentiveness

It's long been established that we have what could be called "subconscious attentiveness," which can cause things such as certain types of psychological priming through images being presented to people, but too quickly for them to be consciously aware of the images.

It now appears, in the latest in attempts to unravel human consciousness, that this cuts both ways.

But, the story doesn't go as far as it could, both on speculation and on Wittgenstein-like questions on our use of language on these issues.

Perhaps "consciousness," "attentiveness" and "awareness" need more precision in usage in such aspects. Or maybe they need to be redefined to some degree. Or replaced.

Whether language will be crafted to this end remains to be seen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

'The Swerve' swerves into the ditch

The Swerve: How
 the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is OK overall, no more, and IS deserving of the criticism Greenblatt has gotten, for overstating his case and more.

Greenblatt's good part is explaining how Poggio came across the book, his general hunting for books, what it was like to be an early Renaissance non-clerical humanist and similar things.

The not so good is overstating his case, and getting some things wrong, incomplete or unexplained.

First, the inventors of atomic theory, Democritus and Leucippus were pre-Epicurean and even pre-Socratic. Greenblatt never mentions this. Nor does he mention that Greek philosophers in general were anti-empirical, and therefore antiscientific, as we know science today. (Indeed, one could argue that Archimedes and Eratosthenes were the only two real scientists the Hellenistic world produced.)

Ergo, especially if we start "modernity" with the Enlightenment and not the Renaissance, Epicureanism was not "how the world became modern." Not even close.

Second, he cherry-picks who was influenced by Lucretius, and how much, and how much influence they had. The late Renaissance world didn't see a flowering of Giordano Brunos.

In this way, the book reminds me of a Ph.D. these written by either an English lit or a psychology grad student, trying to find something semi-outrageous to "break through."

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Identical twins aren't so identical, not even their brains

That's been known to be true for some time. Depending on when the single fertilized egg divided, identical twins can have separarate amniotic sacs, umbilical cords and placentas, the same sac, the same cord as well, or even the same placenta.

And now, we're learning that identical twins may not have entirely the same genetic makeup, not even in brain cells.  As a result, twin studies for illnesses, behavior, etc., may be called into a bit of question, and future twin studies more carefully controlled for subjects.

At the same time, the authors occasionally slip into quasi-teleological language while wondering why evolution "allows" this. Their proposed answer as to why this may happen is interesting, but could serve to have that language nuanced better. Also, even if you allow for the teleological/personifying language, that may not be the reason why this happens; maybe epigenetic events are at least partially involved, even with identicals. After all, they don't share 100 percent the same environment.

And, it may turn out that on a statistical average, such transposition isn't favorable or unfavorable, and that we're talking about a ramped-up genetic drift. Or maybe more modest transposition was more favorable, and now, the degree of favorability has lessened. From what little I know, genetic studies like this are kind of like studying individual frames, or at best, snippets, from a movie, when the backdrop for the movie may have been radically different at another point.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I think Chris Mooney has had some good research on statistical information about psychological differences, on average, between liberal and conservative thought processes, etc. But, I'd agree with both Massimo Pigliucci and even Jerry Coyne that, basically, Mooney is making a couple of mistakes as he goes further down this road.

The first is that he's committing Science Error 101: Conflating statistical and causal correlation.

The second is that he's leaning too hard on the "nature" side of nature vs. nurture, including not noting that, to the degree some of these psychological differences evolved, they did long, long before Aristotle said man was an animal of society, let alone one who formed political parties and alliances.

Lesser critiques are that he's relying on thin reeds of single studies, and that he presents stuff, then won't defend it, claiming he just threw it out there. Another thicker reed is that Mooney may be getting too wrapped up in the agenda of a liberal think tank -- in other words, he's "pulling a Chris Mooney," engaged in the same time of motivated reasoning he's pointed out in other individuals and groups; stay tuned on this one.

But, that's nothing compared to Mooney saying this:
I’ve been in vigorous debates with the “New Atheists” in the past; but frankly, researching The Republican Brain pushed me a lot further towards their camp than I had been before. They’re upset with religion; I’m highly critical of psychological conservatism; and there turn out to be big overlaps between the two. Indeed, conservative religiosity also appears to have a genetic component to it. Liberal religiosity strikes me as also being psychologically liberal, and therefore quite a different beast; but conservative or authoritarian religion reflects much of the rigidity (and denial of reality) of psychological conservatism.

In other words, I’d be surprised if the New Atheists–especially folks like Sam Harris, who have tried to figure out the neuroscience of the religious mind–weren’t in agreement on this one. More soon.
 Good fucking doorknob.

Fiorst, Harris' "research" has largely pushed the envelope of "scientism," as Massimo, for one, and me for another, both well know.

Second, many Gnus don't regularly distinguish between more liberal and more conservative versions of religion. (Example A: P.Z. Myers' twisting poll results to claim atheist were more sexually liberated from guilt than anybody, when Unitarians and Reform Jews actually topped them.)

Third, Gnus in general have never cracked a page of a book on psychology or sociology of religion. Ergo ...

Fourth, re religion and genetic influences, they make the same types of mistakes as Chris appears to be making on Point No. 2 above the pull quote.

Nice company, Chris.

Opinions, passive-aggressiveness and more

First, passive-aggressiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing. Often, it's the personal relationship psychology equivalent of asymmetric warfare. People lower on a power scale fight with the weapons they have.

No, passive-aggressiveness isn't good in a more equal relationship, like an intimate one. And counselors are right to point that out. But, something like an employee vs. employer situation, especially if the employer is putting the energy in the "versus"?

And, isn't it passive-aggressive of an employer to berate an employee for not being able to do something that was at least partially beyond his control, then admit to a third employee just that difficulty with the issue while never fully apologizing to the original employee?

Specifically, the issue of photography.

No, I'm not Ansel Adams. But, I can't make silk purses out of sow's ears. And, I know enough about photography to know when I'm faced with little more than a sow's ear to work with. And, if not a total sow's ear, at least, no better than synthetic velour -- and an employer who should know that in advance, from having been around a while.

That, then, gets to the issue of opinions.

Is it passive-aggressive, even, to not bother offering opinions, or, a better word, ideas, in the first place, if you know they're going to be ignored, rejected, or not listened to?

And, is it really people pleasing to not speak up more, either? Might it rather be an acceptance of reality, or how reality is perceived at the lower end of the stick by someone who's not a stereotypical Type A male?

Of course, from my point of view, these are offered up as largely rhetorical questions.

But, they reflect larger societal issues related to income disparity, job outsourcing, and, some industries (creative-type ones) becoming ever tighter with the dollar and expecting more for less.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Does consciousness go down to neuronal level?

Antonio Damasio, one of the leaders in the investigation of what makes humans conscious, certainly thinks that's what will prove out.

And, because of the number of connections each individual neuron has, that could mean that consciousness for a computer or robot may be quite some ways off, still.

Back to futurist dreamland for Ray Kurzweil, Michio Kaku and others, in that case.

Even if Damasio isn't totally on the right trail, I think he's headed in the right direction. Now, what led to the precursor of consciousness to "emerge" at some level of animal life? How much brain complexity was needed? Is neuronal number per body weight, or neuronal connections per body weight, a power law situation?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The varieties of infinities, or why heaven won't work

I'm an avid nonfiction reader. So, especially at larger libraries, I just head to the new books display and grab what I want ...

While at the same time, knowing I can't read every book I want to.

That has an analogy to Western monotheisms' view of a perpetual, individual-soul afterlife. (Hinduism and some other religions besides the Judeo-Islamo-Christian tradition may fall here, too, but I'm focused on them.)

The analogy? Has roots in one Georg Cantor and the mathematics of infinity.

If you have any familiarity with this, you know there are different infinities of sets, such as
א-null, א-one and א-two. Well, picture your or my individual infinite life in heaven as א-null. Well, if the “set” of א-null is multiplied by itself, we get א-one, a different level of set-infinity. Arguably, even though the number of people in the Western version of heaven, with no procreation, will be finite, one could still say that all the works they will produce will be something like א-one to an individual person’s א-null.

So, heaven would be a sort of “bounded infinity,” and, aside from medieval Christian notions of the real greatness of heaven being to bask in the glory of god, we would see our individual infinities as essentially “bounded.” That, in turn, would be a sort of psychological pain.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Bill Buckley, warts and all

Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American ConservatismBuckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism by Carl T. Bogus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent overview of Buckley, and his particular flavor of conservativism, and how he was able to unite disparate wings of conservativism into one "movement."

Bogus has written for The Nation, among other things, but, from my POV, there's no liberal ax-grinding; Buckley is acknowledged for his successes, while still criticized for his flaws.

Besides the "political sociology" success of creating this modern movement, Bogus notes that Buckley himself was primarily a libertarian, but with social conservative leanings to, albeit of a religious nature. He was NOT, Bogus says, a Burkean, in his take on individualistic vs. collective strands in conservativism. Bogus says that Americans' "rugged individuality" probably has militated against a Burkean line of thought gaining too much steam in America. And, after Russell Kirk decided to pitch his tent under Buckley's Burkeans had no independent leader in the U.S. (And really still don't today.)

Buckley's biggest failing? That of Ron Paul today - race issues. I knew about mid-1950s National Review issues, which were bad enough to be called, if not racist, at least pandering to racists. But, as late as the late 1960s, Buckley was lamenting that too many blacks were in leadership positions in the fight against the Vietnam War, and claimed they were communist dupes, in part because they weren't smarter. THAT I did not know.

And, that was Buckley's second-biggest mistake - Vietnam. He never did admit he was wrong for backing that war to the bitter end. Bogus says that's because Buckley, beyond "evil empire" takes on monolithic communism, had no coherent foreign policy, nor did he attempt to make one.'

That, in turn reflects not a single mistake, but a larger failing. Bogus rightly calls Buckley not a deep thinker. (There are conservative deep thinkers, but, to riff on Bogus, they're not to be found at the main conservative opinion journals.)

Anyway, I don't want to give away too much about the book. Moderates, liberals, and even honest conservatives who don't worship at Buckley's altar will find plenty to like here.

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