Friday, April 26, 2019

Accepting aging and not denying death:
Barbara Ehrenreich on medicine, selfhood, more

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live LongerNatural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's plenty of punch in this slim volume, and it goes beyond what most reviews note. And, for this blog post, I have further expanded my original Goodreads review.

That alone, what is in the reviews, is notable enough. Doctors overexamine most Americans, whether out of profit motives, an overdoing of precautionary principles, the idea of doctor as superman or some combination of all of the above. For two biggies specific to men and women, Ehrenreich references mammograms for women and PSA tests for men. Colon cancer testing, she says, is probably also overdone.

And, then, she dives into issues related to this and beyond. First, our mix of individual genes, the fact that many cancers are hugely multigenic in nature beyond environmental factors and other things, means that outside of things like BRCA, a lot of genetic findings are probabilities, no more, and probabilities not much different from random chance.

So, most such tests aren't worth a whole lot. If they do find anything, "watchful waiting" is much better in most cases than surgical, radiative or chemotherapeutical undertakings. But, a doctor may not tell you that. For one or more of those three reasons above, or others.

Then we get to the real fun.

Your own body may exacerbate many cancers.

Ehrenreich looks at how macrophages can be "bad guys" as well as "good gals." They can "encourage" cancer cells in the area of tumors to continue reproducing rather than killing them. They supply cancer cells with chemical growth factors. They build new blood vessels for them. They help them enter blood vessels they couldn't on their own. This all is best documented with breast cancer, but also shown with lung, bone, gastric and other cancers, she says.

In addition, the spread of arthritis and other inflammation-generated diseases, are also assisted by macrophages.

So, from this, riffing on her previous book "Bright-Sided," Ehrenreich says New Agey ideas of visualizing your body, or "your body," attacking cancer is nonsense. The "your body" goes in scare quotes, because she also documents other ways in which macrophages can be free agents of sorts. She goes back to Russian zoologist Elie Metchenikoff, who first talked about this a century and more ago, but was roundly rejected. Now, his ideas are gaining acceptance. Some other immunological cells have lesser, but not insignificant, degrees of free agency, Ehrenreich says.

We're still not done, though.

Next comes philosophy.

If these cells have that much independence, what does this mean for the idea of a unitary "self"? And, if they're not conscious, but seem to have some independence, what word do we use for that?

Ehrenreich starts by referencing Jessica Riskin and her book "The Restless Clock." Riskin talks about "agency" as a purpose-based set of actions that is below the mental level (if we can even talk about mental levels of a single cell) of consciousness. Ehrenreich notes that we as a species are believed to have evolved highly sensitive agency detectors, but says that dismissing the idea of agency, especially non-conscious agency, from the non-human natural world altogether is a mistake. She says it's a greedy-reductionist view of biology, wanting to cut down to genes, not cells, and base biology on chemistry.

And, we're still not done.

Ehrenreich, paralleling somewhat Irvin Yalom, written up in The Atlantic two years ago about "How to Die," talks about "successful aging" next. That means accepting that aging will happen. Accepting that many blows of aging cannot be fully dodged, not even by rich anti-aging gurus. Accepting and embracing that aging has positive sides. With that, people can stop wasting money on gimmicks and brainwaves on stressing out. They can accept that aging is a normal evolutionary process, too. And, those macrophages that are quasi-free agents, along with other parts of "our" immune system? Just maybe their biggest job is to help kickstart the process of decomposition when each of us dies. (For insightful quotes from Yalom, go here.)

From here, back to philosophy.

Ehrenreich talks about the invention of the "self." In Europe, she says it probably started with the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, then took off in the Enlightenment. Rousseau, of course, majorly boosted the idea.

From there, we've gotten to the modern bombardment with selfhood, "branding" oneself on social media, selfie sticks for smartphone photos and more. (Ehrenreich politely doesn't call a lot of this "dreck," which it is.)

And, thus, it is harder for a modern Westerner, at least in the US, vaguely religious or "spiritual but not religious," to memento mori than it was a medieval Christian who was regularly reminded of that idea at Mass.

Ehrenreich's conclusion? Kill the self, or at least diminish the attachment to it. She mentions psychadelic drugs; on the other hand, many modern Americans who talk about using them seem to look at attaching more to a "self" afterward than before. But, there's potential there, along with long, distracted walks in nature and other things.

Don't rage against the dying of the light; accept that you don't control the sunset or the light switch.

Ehrenreich also refers to the perennial existential insight that while none of us can truly conceive of a world going on its merry way of existence after we're gone, at the same time, none of us can conceive of the world that was merrily going on before we were born, reincarnation claims aside.

But, the problem is ... we as individuals have existed. So, death, or post-death, anxiety hits us in a way that pre-birth trembling doesn't.

One thing that Ehrenreich does not really dive into is the differentiation between fear of death, which is largely existential in nature, and the fear of dying, or of specific types of dying, which is largely empirical in nature. Many of us have had a relative or friend of some sort, if not a loved one, die from some gruesome cancer or something else horrible.

But, with her notes on ixnaying overdone medical testing, Ehrenreich does, however, bring in an existential angle to fears of dying, too. Stop overdoing them.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Who's a Jew vis-a-vis Zionist claims?
History, culture-ethnos vs religion definitions
and many other demarcation problems

I had originally posted this on my main blog, vis-a-vis the Rep. Ilhan Omar contretemps, but it has serious issues tied to ancient history, history of religions, sociology and more that I am posting an edited version of the piece here.

First, what do you mean by "Jew"?

Do you mean a practitioner of the religion of Judaism? Then Whoopi Goldberg is one.

Do you mean an ethnic descendant from the one-time majority Semitic population of a small Eastern Mediterranean nation-state of antiquity?

Then Whoopi Goldberg is not.

This all may seem separate from the issue of anti-Zionism not being anti-Semitism. But it's really semi-separate and no more than that, and I'll hit on that at the bottom.

As friend Massimo Pigliucci would say: We have demarcation issues. One is separating a pracititioner of Judaism the religion from an ethnic Jew. Then, since "race" is not a scientific category in terms of a single standard of genetic demarcation of one group from another, "ethnicity" is definitely not. And, even to the degree we putatively, for argument's sake, try to talk about a particular ethnic group, we have other issues.

In that case, how Jewish are Jews? And, I'm going back far further than the Khazar hypothesis most notably promoted by Arthur Koestler and Raphael Patai, among others, which in any case only covered Ashkenazis.

I'm going back into the Torah to start. Even if half the nations listed in the Torah as living in Palestine promised to Abraham and Moses are fictitious, the other half aren't. Given the actualities of how Israel arose vs myth of the Torah and the Former Prophets in the Nivi'im, there is no pure Jewish bloodline. Because, of course, there was no "invasion" of some Semitic people who had been slaves in Egypt. Rather, Israel arose as an indigenous social-cultural development within Canaanite peoples. Probably a century or so after that, maybe two centuries, reading between the lines, there was an incursion of people from the land of Midian bringing the worship of their tribal god, Yahweh, with them.

Based on the trilateral consonantal root system of most Semitic languages, the name "Yahweh" derives MUCH more likely from the Old Midianite verb "to storm, blow or thunder," rather than the Hebrew verb "to be." In other words, Yahweh was an Old Midianite Zeus, ruling from a dormant but not dead volcano, Sinai; the Numbers version of the Exodus route puts Sinai in Midian (today's northwest Saudi Arabia) and NOT the Sinai Peninsula.

So, Israelites by alleged ethnicity or Israelites or Judahites by religion (religious scholarship doesn't use the word "Judaism" until the return from the Babylonian Exile and even then, many may speak of "proto-Judaism") weren't all "Israelite," in all likelihood. They intermarried with the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites and others that Yahweh allegedly told them to drive out of the country, more clearly explicated as "wipe out" later, in Joshua 9. (And, yes, that would be another call for a holocaust, just like the one against the Amalekites, though that one was more explicit, in 1 Samuel 15. (Zionists claiming both an ethical high ground and a need to have a Zionist-based nation of Israel after the Holocaust thus — if they are religious Jews — are undercut by their own history. If they're non-religious, whether Israeli citizens or not, the idea that is is driven by the Holocaust is undercut by Chaim Weizmann talking about expropriating Palestinian land and more already in 1919. More here. The key quote: "Palestine is to become as Jewish as England is English." And, per the map at this Wiki page, Weizmann and fellow travelers wanted the alleged full promise of Biblical land by Yahweh. In other words, they wanted the arable portions of today's Jordan, too.)

I add in the number of post-Return Judahite males Ezra told to divorce. I presume that not all did and that many had kids.

Add in the Idumeans converted at Maccabean swordpoint. The house of Antipater and Herod weren't the only ethnic Idumeans intermarrying with ethnic Judahites. (Beyond that, the Maccabean wars were as much a civil war as a revolt against the Seleucids.)

None of this is to say that ancient Israel as a socio-cultural / "ethnic" group is any worse than any other group in history, on average. Nor was every portion of Israelite history unenlightened by standards of either then or today. It is to suggest that, on average, it's not necessarily better, though.

That said, we're now at about Khazar times. We know the Khazar Khan converted, and presumably along with his leading nobles, for political reasons, to balance between the Christians of the Byzantine Empire and the Muslims of the Abbasid Caliphate. That said, the khanate lasted long enough that surely a fair number of the Turkic Khazars also converted. There surely were other religious Jews of ethnically "Jewish" (per above) background in that area, too. We know the Crimea, which eventually became part of the khanate, had a large Jewish population. After all, the Crimean Karaites still exist. The genetics, per this note from Wiki, seem to rule out that Ashkenazi Jews are all Turkic, but allow for many of them being partly Turkic.

That said, the issue here is "who's an Ashkenazi"? A Rhinelander German and a Ukrainian in Odessa? A century ago, at least, both may have spoken Yiddish as their first language (well, maybe 200 years ago for unemancipated Rhinelanders) but that's about all they had in common. So, Jews from Odessa, Minsk or Vilnius may have a fair amount of Khazar background, and those from Baden or Köln not so much! So, defining an ethnic group in part by language is another demarcation issue. Ask Serbs and Croats about that one.

Schlomo Sand, in "The Invention of the Jewish People" (even published in Israel first, anti-anti-Zionists who may still pull out the "self-hating Jew" meme) goes into a lot more depth on this "who's an Ashkeazi" and many related issues.

As I noted above, the hypothesis applies only the Ashkenazis anyway. Time to move further west within Europe.

Besides the known-by-group-name Marranos of Spanish history, many a goy may not know their whole family history. Some goys (ahem) have at least guesses in that area. Also, especially from medieval Spain and conversions, that "sangre azul" cuts both ways. It does among Rhineland German Jews too. (If you're wondering, especially per the claim that Judaism is not an "evangelizing religion" [which also ignores the examples above]), in Spain, such conversions to Judaism from both Muslims and Christians are documented. They likely happened in the Rhineland. And in the Polish-Baltic pale of Askhenazim.

What this really shows, just as much as does the "one drop of blood" nonsense about blacks in America, is that "races" don't exist. Certainly, in that sense, "ethnicities" as pure blood don't exist either.

Besides, from the Mishnah on, Rabbinic Judaism has changed its definition of Jewish heritage. In the Tanakh, it was patrilineal, not matrilineal. And some Jews are still open to that today. Read more about the issue here.

In other words, Israelis claiming an ethnic right to ancient Canaan have no biological or socio-cultural leg to stand on. Jews of Israeli sympathy making similar claims to that land have no religious standing other than the law of the sword. It's no different from Crusades Christianity or Hindutva.

Likewise, the concept of a "Chosen People," the pernicious background of all of this, is not unique to Judaism. It's behind American exceptionalism (Reagan's "city on a hill" from John Winthrop), the Anglo-Israelite movement, to tie threads together, and even in the mind of many members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Especially in that last outlet — and likely as well as among some Zionists — it tends to promote a sense of psychological martyrdom. Like in Jehovah's Witnesses.

In turn, this halfway relates to a good idea inside a bad idea in Noah Yuval Hariri's "Homo Deus."

Religions are NOT, contra him, "-isms" or, even more, as he tried to claim, "-isms" are NOT religions.

But, metaphysics aside, fundamentalist versions of religions and more ardently held "-isms" (note the riff on fundamentalISM) do have similar mentalities and mindsets.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Homo Deus, while decent, simply isn’t in the same league as the preceding Sapiens or the following 21 Questions book.

One reason is its niche, I think — futurism books will always be more open to second-guessing than historical interpretations of the past or analyses of the present.

But Hariri also makes some big errors in this book that he doesn’t in the other two.

The biggest is his entire chapter on religion and related issues. And, yes, I mean what I said — the whole chapter is problematic.

There are three “category error” type issues here, to wax philosophical.
One is claiming that ideologies are religions. No,. Marxism and Communism (and liberalism) are ideologies. And nothing more.
The second is trotting out the old “religion vs spirituality” trope. Can we put this tired cliché to rest?
The third is failure to wax philosophical, per my intro.

These are all compounded by, and contingent to, his poor definition of what religion is, but especially his failure to wax philosophical.

No, religion is NOT about things “superhuman.” Good philosophy in general, good philosophy of religion, and good psychology of evolutionary development from people like Scott Atran would all rectify that mistake.

Religion is about “matters metaphysical,” which is far different than “superhuman.” Alien life might be superhuman, but per the old Star Trek episode, many of us today, I would hope, would not worship it. For that matter, in straight power, the sun is “superhuman.”

No, religion is about “matters metaphysical,” as I define it. And, not just any matters metaphysical, but metaphysical matters of “ultimate concern.” I have to sound like a process theologian because atheist types of Buddhism are indeed religious, contra Robert Wright and other peddlers of bullshit.

But, it’s not just “about” metaphysical matters of ultimate concern. It’s about individuals, as individuals and as groups, conducting rituals and other actions to keep themselves “well aligned” with such metaphysical matters of ultimate concern.

This is why atheistic types of Buddhism are a religion and Confucianism is not.

With a proper definition of religion, one avoids calling ideologies religions. One also avoids trying to claim that “spirituality,” if it is metaphysical (some is, some isn’t) is automatically not religious. The third is bringing more critical thinking to this subject in general.

At this point, we’d lost a star right there. But, tentacles extending from the errors above were enough to drop this another star.

Philosophy is missing at a few other spots, too. That’s especially true on issues of free will, volition and consciousness. I agree with him that free will as traditionally conceived likely doesn’t exist. However, I HIGHLY disagree with him that this means determinism, or determinism plus randomness, is all that’s left.

First, we don’t act that way, and that should be taken into account more than he does. Second, per many modern philosophers, it’s possible that something kind of like free will, on a less than fully conscious level, does exist. Third, per the paragraph above, we need to say “mu” to the whole “free will vs. determinism” story.

And, I am sure Hariri knows what the word “mu” means and also knows what I am getting at in calling it a “story.”

And, there’s a bit too much techno-optimism.

I hate to bump two full stars, given that both other books are five-star, but … it’s what’s called for.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 05, 2019

Richard Cory Redux

My homage, in more modern times, to the classical poem by Edward Arlington Robinson.

Go here for the original.


Whenever Tommy Johnson went up town
Haughty in high brick homes glared down at him
No gentleman he, not from sole to crown,
Half starving, preternaturally thin.

Poor was he, poor he’d been, poor would remain,
Alone, fam’ly gone, left to his own wit.
Even we at life’s edge felt his pain,
And yet … to that he would never admit.

Then one weekend, six numbers matched his list,
The dream of each and all of us come true.
The state had millions to fulfill his bliss;
Dear old TJ would be a bit less blue.

No more Tommy Johnson went up town;
Twas Thomas now, whether you please or not.
Imperially robed from sole to crown,
Without a care, even without a thought.

And he was now so flashily displayed,
Somehow he seemed less human when he talked;
Duded like a crosstown pimp, all us said,
Yet too inept to swagger when he walked.

Rich? Yes, with all his wealth could buy, and yet,
Each new monthly dollar meant yet less taste
But without fear, without regret or fret;
Envious, we wished we were in his place.

Christmas neared, and he fancied he wished
Peace on earth to all, good will to men,
And from the fullness of his heart he fished
Dimes for Santa to briefly pause his bell-din.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
Went without heat, wishing old Tommy dead;
Then our quondam friend, one cold winter night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head. 

— With a nod to Edwin Arlington Robinson

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Richard Elliott Friedman just wrong on Levite Exodus

I had seen his book to that end a year ago at a library, briefly grokked it, then put it back on the shelf as I found it untenable.

Then, someone who left a comment on a Goodreads review of mine referred me to a blog link of his about the "Kenite hypothesis" for the origin of Yahweh, and made extensive reference to Richard Elliott Friedman.

With a link to this blog post by Friedman.

Several issues, some of which I told said blogger, go directly to Friedman.

First, the fact that Levites have Egyptian names means nothing. So did Moses, as Friedman as well as said blogger claim, and Moses never existed. And, I think Friedman also rejects claims of Moses' historicity.

Second, I've never before heard the E strand of the Torah called "Levite."

Third, while I lean toward some version of the documentary hypothesis, I know that fragmentary hypothesis modifications and tendrils are part of the history of the writing of sections of the Torah.

Fourth, claiming that something like omission of most Exodus plagues by the current J means he never wrote about them? Arguments from omission or silence on textual criticism and higher criticism are untenable by nature and often simply wrong.

Fifth, as Friedman knows, the relations between Levites and priesthood, and the nature of the priesthood and its putative origins, are more complex than he puts forth at times. It's more than simple opposition between self-identified followers of Moses and self-identified followers of Aaron — who is also, of course, not a historical person.

Sixth, Egypt-type ideas are borrowed in biblical books outside the Torah. Isaiah 9 so beloved of Christians is lifted from Egyptian coronation language.

So, I'm glad in a sense I didn't read his book, and he should be glad, too.

And, I must have missed this when I read Friedman's "Who Wrote the Books of the Bible?" No, P didn't write in the time of Hezekiah. That's simply incorrect. So is his reasoning why. If there was no historic Moses and no historic exodus, there is no bronze serpent Nehushtan created by Moses and venerated by Moses-followers for Hezekiah to have destroyed in the name of Aaronic followers.

This would be like Dominicans claiming the Shroud of Turin was created by St. Dominic and the current pope destroying it to uplift Franciscans.

In reality, the whole idea sounds like certain parts of the nation of Judah appropriating an old Canaanite snake cult, or such a cult surviving from the rise of Israel before Judah's invasion, or something like that, and attaching the name of Moses to it.

Friedman is apparently more of a "maximalist" within the realm of modern historical criticism than I realized.

As for the blogger?

As I said there, the "Kenite hypothesis" of how Judah came to worship Yahweh is not directly contradictory to the etymology of the name "Yahweh."