Overweening Generalist

Friday, April 27, 2012

Origin of Music: A Kluge? A Spandrel? An Exaptation?

How and when did music begin? I'm not sure we'll ever "really" come to a conclusion that will satisfy most people, but that's not the point; if we're at all interested in The Question, then the intellectual-aesthetic joys seem to reside in the debates and the different frameworks of talk and explanatory schemes that attend the query. It's easy to get mired in one scheme. Try JOOTSing ("Jumping outside of the system," a term from Douglas Hofstadter) and looking at another system of explanation. My favorite models have switched four or five times in the past few years.

                                   Charles "I Don't Want to Make Anyone Upset" Darwin

I used to be in the Darwin camp, and it's still a robust, vital model. (Of course!) Basically, the Darwin model sees not much of a practical "use" for a reason we evolved to be musical beings: the hot stuff is in sex selection. One of the reasons I've always found the "music is not practical for anything except pleasure and advertising as a viable sex mate" a persuasive bit is because of my own wallflower background as a kid. I was too too shy and didn't know the first thing about getting girls. It was agonizing. If I did have women my age in my life, I'd fallen into "let's just be friends" territory. But when I started playing guitar - I'm some sort of extremist because I took to it so strongly that I made myself practice four hours a day, almost right from the start - that when I got into my first bands, the girls "all the sudden" came at me like iron filings and I was some tall, gaunt, poorly-complected goofball girl-magnet. Yes they did come. It worked!...far better than I ever thought it would! Soon, I realized I wanted to actually be good and try to impress myself with my axe, but that's another story.

Recently - the last few years - I've been following the genes stuff that say music rides on language genes. This is where the science gets hairy, because I'm no expert and read debates between evolutionary psychologists, geneticists, and psycholinguists who have far better knowledge of the particulars. I find I look for elegance of rhetorical style in a psychologist's or sociobiologist's or semiotician's or linguist's or cognitive scientist's or ethnomusicologist's or zoomusicologist's arguments, which is no way to evaluate, but let's face it: most of us generalists just don't know...and if very many Experts disagree, I don't feel so bad. I'm not convinced anyone knows. Hence this blog...

Just in the past few years, we've found prehistoric flute-like instruments (a mammoth's bone-flute from c.35,000 years old that gave - approximately - the first four notes of the major scale [No 5th? O! As Maxwell Smart might've said, "Missed it by that much."]). Some have found some genes that seem to help in learning music. Neuroscientists have found localized areas of the brain that seem to function for improvisation. It's all very bewildering to me, I must confess.

But intriguing...

I scanned my copy of Edward O. Wilson's magisterial 1975 bombshell of an intellectual book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis for observations on music and there's one short paragraph on it (p.564 in the first ed.), in the final chapter "Man: From Sociobiology to Sociology," and EOW hits on quasi-religious "uniting" people, identification like birds, apes drumming like carnival displays, animals just like us in some way, on a grand continuum. Comparing animals' uses of music to ours, "Richness of information and precise transmission of mood are no less the standard of excellence in human music." Later: "Human music has been liberated from iconic representation in the same way that true language has departed from the elementary ritualization characterizing the communication of animals. Music has the capacity for unlimited and arbitrary symbolization, and it employs rules of phrasing and order that serve the same function as syntax." And who can quibble with that? EOW seems influenced by Chomsky in that last bit, but EOW's also talking about where music ended up, by 1975 at least, before Auto-Tune.

HERE's a pretty good example of two psychologists who disagree about the "innateness" of music. I consider this polite debate between Geoffrey Miller and Gary Marcus to be a "push." I have no dog in this fight. Gary Marcus is also interviewed HERE for his latest book, Guitar Zero: The New Music and the Science of Learning, by the beautiful Cara Santa Maria. It's a good debate - the one between Miller and Marcus - if you haven't been keeping up on the origin of music debates lately, I think it's a very readable entry place. There's a book called Origins of Music by Wallin, Merker and Brown that came out in 2000 if you want to get quickly immersed in the intricacies of this stuff.

[A brief aside: the Marcus book shatters some assumptions about learning an instrument like guitar at a late age, say over 30. If you "always wanted to" but felt like you "waited too long," you still can! And Marcus provides some enticing neurobiological reasons why you still can.]

Lately I've favored the data about shamans, who imitate the sounds of animals and other sounds in nature, or the trough of onomatopoeiac explanations. The birds sing: are they communicating with each other, trying to wow a potential mate, or doing it for some bird-intrinsic rewarding "reason"? I don't know, but lately my main guys on this subject are two poetic philosophers: Lucretius (c.98-55 BCE), and Gimabattista Vico (1668-1744), who was influenced by Lucretius.

In his baroque exposition of his "New Science," Vico is fascinated by ideas about the origins of speech, writing, poetry, singing, gods, social order, and metaphors. In this he prefigures modern cognitive science, and many current Anthropologists and Sociologists think Vico originated cultural anthropology. Some of his passages on how metaphors work in the mind seem uncannily like George Lakoff's ideas, and indeed, in Lakoff's book The Political Mind he acknowledges Vico as a pre-empirical forerunner of thinkers who saw metaphor not as a figure of speech but as basic to thought.

"The authors of the first pagan nations must have formed their first languages by singing. For they had fallen into the brutish state of mute beasts, and in such dull-witted creatures only the stimulus of violent passions could have awakened consciousness."

"Mute people can utter crude vowels by singing, just as by singing stammerers can overcome their impediment and articulate consonants."

Orpheus would be a metaphorical god for those who were particularly adept at singing and perhaps playing a primitive instrument, like a lyre. An Orphic used music as strong rhetoric. I'd say He still does! But perhaps I'll go into that some other day.

                                         Supposedly this was what Lucretius looked like

Now my favorite passage from any book on this subject. From Lucretius's On The Nature Of Things, Book V:

By imitating with the mouth the clear notes of birds was in long use before men were able to sing in tune smooth-running verses and give pleasure to the ear. And the whistlings of the zephyr through the hollows of reeds first taught peasants to blow into hollow stalks. Then step by step they learned sweet plaintive ditties, which the pipe pours forth pressed by the fingers of the players, heard through pathless woods and forests and lawns, through the unfrequented haunts of shepherds and abodes of unearthly calm. These things would soothe and gratify their minds when sated with food; for then all things of this kind were welcome. Often therefore stretched in groups on the soft grass beside a stream of water under the boughs of a high tree at no great cost they would pleasantly refresh their bodies, above all when the weather smiled and the seasons of the year painted the green grass with flowers. Then went round the jest, the tale, the peals of merry laughter; for the peasant muse was then in its glory; then frolick mirth would prompt to entwine head and shoulders with garlands plaited with flowers and leaves, and to advance in the dance out of step and move the limbs clumsily and with clumsy foot beat mother earth; which would occasion smiles and peals of merry laughter, because all these things then from their greater novelty and strangeness were in high repute. And the wakeful found a solace for want of sleep in this, in drawing out a variety of notes and going through tunes and running over the reeds with curling lip; whence even at the present day watchmen observe these traditions and have lately learned to keep a proper tune; and yet for all this receive not a jot more of enjoyment, than erst the rugged race of sons of earth received. - translated by H.A.J. Munro

                               In case you haven't seen this, Slovakian violist is able to roll with
                               the modern punches (one minute or so):

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Analogous Thought: My Meandering Mind

I've accumulated a ridiculous, embarrassing amount of notes, links and ideas for subjects to write about - at least 200 broad categories of subjects - that, were I being paid for blogging, I could easily churn out five or ten blog posts a day, each on some separate topic. I've often used the acronym "FFUI" (for "free-floating unattached intelligentsia," a phrase I copped from Karl Mannheim) here at the OG; I think maybe I'm more the flaneur I mentioned near the end of my last blogspew. Or Herbert Gold's term, "magpie intellectual"? Then again, to quote Marlene Dietrich's last line from Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, "What does it really matter what you say about people?"

Benefits of Bilingualism
So yea: I was going to write on some recent articles that suggest bilingualism has some intriguing and beneficial aspects we weren't sure of only a few years ago. Then I was going to shift to the personal and talk about my ability to quickly remember 75-100 phrases in some non-English foreign language - usually the ones you'd need if you found out you were going to Country X in a week. ("Thank you," "Excuse me, but where is the ____,?" the days of the week, "Please, I'd like the (menu item)," "How are you doing sir/madam?," "Another beer please," and "How much?" are just a few of the obvious ones.)

However, like far too many Unistatians, I'm monolingual; I've yet to really immerse myself in one language and become truly conversant in it. I've at times memorized the sentence "I'm sorry, but I don't speak (the local language) very well," so well, and with an apparent accent, that native speakers have often thought I was being modest and went on, in something utterly incomprehensible to me. I've not studied the grammar of another language in depth, and the vast number of nouns needed to get by looks menacing to me.

                                 The Proto-Indo-European language family

I took a stab at Intelligence Increase a while back but barely made a dent; it turns out learning new languages has broad implications for getting smarter. The New York Times's Yudhuit Bhattacharjee recently cited studies that, rather than one language inhibiting the other in one's mental processes, it's more complex than that, that both systems are in use even when one is being used, which forces the brain to solve internal conflicts, strengthening cognitive muscles. Bilingualism enhances executive (frontal lobe) functions: planning, staying focused, and solving real-world problems. Having more than one language is linked to a heightened ability to monitor the local environment, and it also seems to make one resistant to the onset of dementia. I would consider all of these benefits to fall under the rubric, "intelligence increase."

                                        Daniel Kahneman, born 1934, still thriving, won 
                                        Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for work in 
                                        Prospect Theory, which annihilated the presumptions
                                        of far-too-rationalistic Econs. Kahneman came from
                                        the field of Psychology. The Econs needed this...
                                        But will they learn from it?

A University of Chicago study shows bilingualism helps eliminate certain unconscious biases and allows us to make better financial decisions. HERE's another take on this study, from Wired. Note that much of the core of these studies comes out the jaw-droppingly phenomenal work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. If you get a chance, spend an hour or two with Kahneman's recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Some people deserve more than one Nobel Prize for their work...

Then there was THIS article by Robert Lane Greene, that argues for English speakers to pick French to learn, because Chinese is too difficult, which made me wonder. I knew Chinese was hard (I was only able to recite about 15 phrases, and had difficulty), mostly because of the tonal aspects, but I thought it might make me a better musician; also: reading Chinese would totally RAWK!, and I'd have more chances to practice speaking Chinese in Unistat than I would if I spoke French. But French really does sound sexy to me.

William Bright's Multilingual Might
Speaking of difficult languages: I'm reminded of someone I recently stumbled upon, the virtuoso comparative linguist William Bright. He is the father of "Susie Sexpert," AKA Susie Bright, whose work I understand FAR BETTER than her dad's knowledge of Native American and Southern Asian languages such as Karuk, Luiseno, Nahuatl, Wishram, Ute, Yurok, Lushai, Kannada, Tamil and Tulu.

People like this I find just astonishing. It reminds me of Kenneth Hale, who died about 18 months ago. There's a story - I can't remember where I read it so I'm probably getting it wrong - but Hale was legendary for picking up new languages very easily, and not superficially like the way I do it. He could become conversant at a speed that seemed superhuman. The story I recall was he was going to attend a conference in Sweden, and he didn't know Swedish...but he learned it on the plane!

Anyway, back to William Bright: he died in 2006 of a brain tumor of the type glioblastoma multiforme, which reminded me of someone else who had the same tumor and died from it.

Terence McKenna
Terence also had glioblastoma multiforme. Erik Davis did the last in-depth interview with Terence, and it's collected in Davis's envy-provoking-for-me book of essays, Nomad Codes, but it's also to be found HERE.

I had recently been sent a brief video of Terence's words being used to encourage Occupiers. It's about a minute long. "Find the others" was a recurring riff from Timothy Leary, and I think Terence is quoting Leary here, although I'm not sure.

When reading Erik Davis's piece I thought of Unistat and some of its marginalized - because of drugs, mostly - visionary intellectuals, and how they went out, a looming inexhorrible terminus in clear sight, yet their departures were with grace and courage, and yes, a certain style. William Burroughs's last words were about love being the greatest drug of all. Leary died surrounded by friends and family, throwing one last long party, dying on his own terms (see his vastly underrated book and libertarian  Design For Dying), and, as he went out, allegedly his last words were, "Why not?" Robert Anton Wilson wrote this to his family, friends and fans before dying five days later.

Back to Terence, his tumor - which is really a nasty one and fairly common as brain tumors go, it takes out its hosts generally quickly - has recently suffered a setback of its own. From an April 17th, 2012 dispatch from U. of California at San Francisco: rather than brain surgery to remove the tumor as best as the surgeon can do, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, a vaccine that uses cells from the patient's own tumor, injected into the arm like a flu shot, extended the lives of patients for up to a few months. This technique seems promising for all sorts of cancers, and I particularly liked the term for the adversary of the cancer: "heat shock proteins."

Here's a surreal Portuguese film called The Manual of Evasion. It features Terence, RAW, and Rudy Rucker riffing on the topics of Time and Space. It's not a bad accompaniment to some choice herb. It's 57 minutes long...but according to the ideas of Terence and RAW and Rucker, "57 minutes" seems like a horribly prosaic idea!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

From My Childhood Baseball Card Collection to Walter Benjamin: The Vortex of History

Recently, the now-famous Honus Wagner baseball card sold for $1.2 million. Around 1911, Wagner demanded the American Tobacco Company cease production of the card bearing his image, either because he was so square he thought it immoral for his image to be involved in potentially encouraging the vice of smoking among children, or he was pissed off his image was being used to generate money for a tobacco company and he wasn't getting a slice. Or something else. Anyway, there may only be around 50 of the cards in existence, many of them in a very bad state. The one that sold for $1.2 was in good condition, and another one sold for $2.8 million. I'm pretty sure that one was in very good condition.

Yes, we're talking about baseball cards.

Here's my story about cards. As a boy, I was crazy about the things, and a few of my friends were too. I mowed neighbors' lawns and washed their cars to make extra money to try to complete that year's set. I'd buy, for 15 cents, packs of 10 that had one very sharp-edged slab of hard, thin, pink bubble gum in them. We'd buy eight or twelve packs at a time, walk a few feet outside the store onto the sidewalk, rip open the packs and quickly rifle through the ten cards, noting with the dexterity of a Las Vegas croupier which ones were duplicates - which we could potentially trade with a friend who might have one we in turn didn't have - and which ones were new to us. There'd be about 600 unique cards per baseball season, and broken into series of around 110, released at different times during the season.  You'd get a call on some July morning: "The third series is out!," and feel your pulse quicken. The wrappers (and often the lousy gum) would go into the trash bin on the sidewalk, and we'd walk home talking about who we had, who we still needed to get. Boys as totally irrational collectors of images of romantic men we might be one day ourselves, if only we could hit the ball out of the infield. Our own little low-stakes micro-world version of Tulip-mania. Our entrance into the world of commodity fetishism. We would have no Critical Theory for another 15 years.

                                         The now-famous Wagner card, worth literally millions

Often we'd noticed some barely noteworthy player - a backup shortstop for the Brewers or some reliever with a high ERA - was the one card we couldn't find. When one of us found it, envy ensued. This may have been our first taste of a corporate conspiracy theory: to get us to waste as much of our allowances on cards as possible. Every kid I ever knew kept all his duplicates separate; they were little stacks of waste. They represented pitches swung at and missed. They were ordered pollution. May as well throw 'em away...but some other kid might actually "need" one of your banjo-hitting shortstops. You had five of that guy, or four more than you needed. It was stuff like this that was bothersome in our lives. (Did I really live that life?)

At some point, I think it was my dad who found an article in the Los Angeles Times about a very rare baseball card that might be worth $250. It was the Honus Wagner. Jeez, you'd think it would be Lou Gehrig, or Ty Cobb, or Babe Ruth. I knew Wagner was in the Hall of Fame. He was from the Dead Ball Era. He was so deep in ancient history it was freakish stuff. Who could afford to spend that much on a baseball card? I read the article with the same sense of irreality that attended an article about the history of the Hope Diamond, or how Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone: marvelous, uncanny, hard to believe.

One day, while reading the ads in the back of a comic book, I noticed some place on the other side of the country sold cards on demand - for five or ten cents each! I'd write them for a FREE catalog, and then send them cash in an envelope, noting exactly which cards I wanted. It took all the romance - and waste - out of buying packs of bubblegum, but I was able to collect complete sets, almost all in perfect condition, of the cards issued by Topps from 1969 through 1975, when I got tired of "all that" and moved onto other things. In the collecting years, I'd stumbled onto ways to obtain much older cards for relatively cheap prices, and I had all of those neatly bundled, by number in their own special shoe boxes I inherited from my mom. I had a few cards from the 1950s. I had a Mickey Mantle. I had...oh, nevermind.

                                       Here's a 1971 Hank Aaron card. I owned this one. 
                                       This was three years before he broke Babe Ruth's 
                                       all-time home run record. I remember the day he broke
                                       the record. I was glad for him. Hammerin' Hank is a 
                                       Good Guy. Always was. 

I had complete, mint collections of basketball, football, and hockey cards too. They eventually were stored in my closet, in the dark. If there were any shops that dealt in sports memorabilia, I had never heard of them. Sports cards were strictly kid's stuff, although over the years I had heard stories of some classmate's father who owned...everything. I assumed they were stories.

Around the age of 17, I realized if I wanted to have any realistic hope of getting laid, I'd require my own car, and therefore needed money fast. One way: I saw an ad in a local newspaper. Some guy would buy my sportscards. I remember he came out to the house and looked at them, and offered me $50, and I said okay. I don't remember haggling. I had ceased even thinking about those cards for a few years.

It only took about another three or four years before sports cards became a big deal. I thought, "Well, I was into that before anyone else was!" Then, closer scrutiny brought the devastating revelation that my collection I'd sold a few years ago would have probably been worth at least $5000 if I still had it. I saw a catalog of special cards that sold for $25 or $50 each. I had owned most of those. I told the truth to anyone who'd listen. I felt like a fool, but how could I have known that stuff would all the sudden become a Big Deal? The more I told my story, the more therapeutic it was, for some reason. Oh well: sometimes kids do hasty, stupid things, and how many people thought the earliest Apple stock was probably overpriced and passed?

There were storefront memorabilia shops all over the place now, and they sold cards, and I studiously avoided going in there to look, although I remember telling one guy who seemed to know the card market like a stock broker can talk stocks, and he thought I'd probably had a collection worth $8000. Which was not pleasant to hear.

Anyway: I was soon playing guitar in rock bands, enjoying college, smoking pot, having sex, teaching private music lessons to people aged 6 to 60, but mostly 16.

                                                       Walter Benjamin

On my own, one day, I was reading a book on Marshall McLuhan, who was a very trippy genius; I didn't quite "get" him, and I still don't. But to this day I enjoy reading him. I "get" him a little more every year. This book happened to mention an essay by someone named Walter Benjamin, who I'd never heard of. I found the essay, I forget where. It was called "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Here was this old German dude, heavy thinker, writing in the 1930s (and I soon learned he'd tried to escape from the Nazis to join his Frankfurt School friends in Unistat, only to be caught in Catalonia and committing suicide with an overdose of morphine in late September, 1940), and he was trying to convince us that films and photography rob individually-made works of their "aura." It didn't make sense to me, probably because I loved photography books. And I was crazy about film. But in the ensuing years I noted that this essay by Benjamin was becoming more and more famous.

One night I got stoned and read the essay again and it made sense. These things happen.

"To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return." - Walter Benjamin

I didn't know it until a few years later: Benjamin, an intellectual of astonishing depth and breadth, had been heavily influenced by Charles Baudelaire's writings on drugs, especially hashish. Benjamin has undergone a systematic program of using drugs and writing while stoned, or recollecting the stoned state, in order to build up a body of work - along with other painters, poets, and intellectuals - that would catalog the temporary moments of internal freedom from Ordinary Reality. It was theorized that, for humans to carry out a successful revolution away from the types of "mind" that led to World War I, the various fascisms in Europe, and the deadening of the senses that life under industrial capitalism brought, systematic inquiry into stoned (and other non-ordinary states) would lead to a jumping off point for true Revolution.

And Benjamin's idea of "aura" was arrived at during an investigation of hashish.

I thought about my relationship to the mass-produced cards I had been obsessed with as a kid. I still remember time alone, looking at the cards, studying the data of the player's career. Bats left, throws right. Hit .382 one year in the minor leagues! I think I perceived an aura with some of those cards. I think some of them "spoke" to me. To this day I vividly remember a handful of cards, for some odd reason. Why? Why should I have cared? What did it mean? These were not one-offs, invested with - and this is what Benjamin thought an aura was - a quality that was apart from its material signifier in the world. Like an afterimage, but more ethereal. He thought mass production of the same old cookie-cutter item washed out the aura of the Original. I like the idea. It's a great "stoned" idea, and indeed: Benjamin, a mystical quasi-secular Jewish intellectual, was one of the great stoner-artists of all time. (See Benjamin on Hashish. This is intellectual stonerism at its "highest" high...) A work of Art could, when the perceiver focuses upon it, return its own feelings of profound wonder of existence, beauty, truth. Let me be clear: you the viewer can perceive these things AND the Work Itself can permeate some level of existence with its own feelings about the Profound.

Benjamin's idea of "aura" - the now-famous essay was first published around 1935  - turned out to have a strong influence on Critical Theory and postmodernism. So when your professor had you read Frederic Jameson and you thought to yourself, "Maybe if I was stoned I could make sense of this stuff," you probably weren't far off.

Now rare baseball cards are bought by wealthy investors as if they were paintings by minor Expressionist masters. The idea of value in Art will never cease to be a wonder to me.

But I still think I had that experience of "aura" with a few mass-produced baseball cards when I was 12. I can't explain it. I remember feeling it. I think it best not to try to explain it. I remember that time as golden.

There is this French word flaneur. An idler, a lounger. It's often been used in the sense of...well, myself as the sort of blogger-writer the Overweening Generalist represents: the sort of bookish person you see in a cafe, writing poetry or some essay on the meaning of History. Benjamin thought the flaneur turned his back on history, all the while being swept up by it. The flaneur reads and ponders the endless expanse of ruins in history and is blown forward by history, into the future, a supermassive vortex of Progress carrying everything within its forces...

I must leave you with the supreme intellectually stoned feel of Benjamin. Here's the first paragraph of his essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," translated from German by Harry Zohn:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet's hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called "historical materialism" is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. - p. 253, from a collection of Benjamin essays called Illuminations: Essays and Reflections 

The Wiki for the Honus Wagner card, with hints and outlines as to its history and intrigues.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moral and Political Thought

Picking up where I left off the last: This business of hardwired political views as a new science is, as they say in Hollywood, "blowing up;" it's becoming a big deal. The metaphor "hardwired" ought to be looked at for a second: does our moral and political behavior really work as if someone had spot-welded all the parts together, with no going back and unplugging these wires from over here, plugging those in there, soldering a new cable into a jack bought at the parts store because a component was discovered that would access other systems was spied in the manual, etc? No changes can occur? It's a "done deal" at some point?

Well, apparently lots of scientists would like us to think so. There's the Grail of isolating the one gene, or a cluster of genes, that would sure enough predict that your two-year-old would indeed grow up to read Noam Chomsky...or Ann Coulter. In Sasha Issenberg's piece I linked to above, a political strategist reads some new Psychology books and decides he'll help his candidate by focusing ads based on "thinkers" versus "feelers." Haidt says most of our political "thinking" is "moral instinct papered over," and what a good writer Haidt is! It's lines like that that get people persuaded you're really onto something. And maybe he is. A quick diversion:

In a previous blogspew on Jonathan Haidt, I linked to his YourMorals.org test. Here's another test, called Political Compass. It's much shorter than the battery Haidt's colleagues want you to take, and one of its main purposes is to get you out of thinking on the dumb Euclidean line of
Left<-----------Centrist------->Right; it's more 3-D-ish, and it's HERE if you wanna take it. I think it gives a certain snapshot of who you are politically, and by association, morally. I've taken the test three times now, most recently within 72 hours of my writing this. HERE's my result. I'm a "left libertarian." A quite pronounced one, it seems.

Robert Anton Wilson explains the Dumb Game of Left-Right Euclidean politics in a way no one else I've ever seen come close. [Thanks to the guys at rawilsonfans.org.]

Haidt says he wrote The Righteous Mind not to try to convince anyone to switch their allegiances, but to try and understand the Other better, and possibly minimize the hate. (His name rhymes with "fight," not "fate," as I've been listening to people talk about him lately.) I liked the last two paragraphs of Jonathan Ree's pithy review in The New Humanist. The most I can implement from this book, I take it, is to use George Lakoff's framing techniques to talk about Authority, Sanctity, and Loyalty in a way that might catch the ear of a "conservative." I'll get back to Haidt in a moment, but I was talking about genes and morality...

I think we can safely agree that we have a reflex for self-flattery, that emotions do rule, that our reasoning is like a lawyer's trying to win a case. And of course our political ideas are NOT totally deliberative. I do think environment and experience and learning all contribute, especially if one has tested one's own presumptions many times. I've done it. I've read National Review. I read Francis Fukuyama's The End of History. I once had a job where I was offered a transfer to another library branch, one in a very beautiful and wealthy section of Los Angeles, where most of the patrons I'd meet would be old, very wealthy Republicans. I had very long hair and thought I'd try testing myself here - I'm pretty sure I was a left-libertarian then too - and I was prepared to experience lots of nastiness. But after a few years, I really liked most of the patrons, and they were very sweet to me. Some were obviously very conservative, but they asked me questions about politics and I gave them my honest takes, and they respected me.

I'd say about 8-12% of the patrons I ran into there were the classic mean, pinched, bitter, evil, ugly rich old white people. Most were surprisingly, delightfully pleasant. This opened my eyes. It didn't change my politics much though.

                                  William Irwin Thompson. "The history of the soul is always
                                  the history of the voiceless, the oppressed, the repressed."
                                  Photo by Michael Laporte

But do I think genes will explain all this? No, despite NYU psychologist Ned Jost's findings in the "The End of the End of Ideology" paper, mentioned in Issenberg's excellent overview article. Indeed, read the section on Jost's work and see if it doesn't look isomorphic to the Rattray-Taylor oral/anal lists I gave in my previous blogpost. Jost: We're not divided by class, geography or education so much as by temperament. 

Temperament. O! How I urge you, Dear Reader, if you haven't already, to read the first lecture in William James's Eight Lectures on Pragmatism. If Haidt and his data-set don't come off as "tender-minded," then you weren't paying attention.

It seems the search for a genetic substrate that will explain macro-world phenomena gets you funding. It allows scientists to do what they really want to do: wake up in the morning and go to work to solve some problem of some sort. If their hypotheses don't work out the way they had envisioned, they write that up anyway: it's still good science: if we thought it worked this way, we were probably wrong. Meanwhile, jobs and knowledge were created. And though searching genomes and testing genes has gotten much cheaper over just the past year or so, it's still heady stuff. It's creative work, too. Get the ideas. Figure out how to test them. Figure out how to test your test. It's brainy stuff, aye.

But I remember the great generalist and one-time M.I.T. lecturer William Irwin Thompson - who dropped out of academia - saying about hardcore sociobiology something along the lines that it's sheer bullshit to say you're going to find a gene to be an auto-mechanic. You say morality and a political bend is more "basic" than something as particular as Thompson's reductio ad absurdum? You're probably right, but do we realize how dizzyingly complex "genes" are? If you try to keep up with this stuff, it seems like it's getting to be like particle physics. Or worse. It may be even more complex than that, especially if we take into account epigenetics, where RNA plays a much bigger part than we'd imagined. It's not just DNA sending RNA "the" message to other genes to make proteins z, q and x3. That was the older, simpler days. Now the environment has genes and RNA-DNA feeding back in ways we didn't guess, hopping genes, "junk DNA" that is turning out to not be so junky...I mean check out this recent article, "Chromosomes Organize Into 'Yarns': May Explain Why DNA Mutations Can Effect Genes Located Thousands of Base-Pairs Away," from a few days ago.

Although why I'm some left-libertarian socialist and those who love Fox News are decidedly...<cough> not, and I find their morality, extrapolated/writ large as basically stupid, devolutionary, and sadistic, I don't really know why I'm like this. One parent was staunchly Democrat. Another a Republican who never really got into the Issues. I have a sibling who went from extreme Right Wing Christian born-again Evangelical to a sort of New Church, Jesus said to heal the sick and feed the poor leftist Christian. Most of the other immediate family members aren't very political, although if they are, it's right wing authoritarian stuff.

Ultimately, it's genes, something like ethological "imprinting," family upbringing, peer group at puberty, geography, historical moment, accidents like meeting a very influential person at one point or another when you're vulnerable to some sort of change, and...more accidents and happenstance. Genes? Yes. And probably a bunch of stuff we have only the slightest inklings about. Here's one we've just begun to really gain deeper understandings about:

There's a neuroeconomist named Paul Zak. He wondered about how economies are effected by the human action of "trust," which seemed kind of nebulous to me. He thought - and it made sense to me - that the more trust, the better the economy works. Here's a short article on the "trust hormone" that we make endogenously and secrete when we make eye contact, hug, smile at each other, fall in love, etc. The video of Zak is about 3 minutes long. So add to all the factors above: hormones.

                                        Neuroeconomist and "Dr. Love," Paul Zak

Finally, back to Jonathan Haidt. In my understanding of the world to date, there are some people who, like Oscar Wilde, thought/think that obedience to authority was the Original Sin. In modern terms, these people have often transcended the socio-sexual Hive Morality and experienced neurosomatic bliss, then showed others how to do it. We got the Sexual Revolution from these people, largely. And I see that movement as still going strong, still playing out on the stage, at least in the West. When Authoritarian Men try to roll back gains women had made, even subject them to sexual humiliation, I think it's largely because women have made so many gains. Women are doing well, relative to men, at least in Unistat. By 2019 they will probably make up at least 60% of all graduate students. And they will continue to do well. As well they should. They aren't hurting men by doing well. But a small, loudmouthed, fairly fascistic set of men are responding to the changes - probably mostly unconscious of the deeper reasons why: their fear of losing Control - so they are making themselves very busy right now, shooting every toe on each foot, one by one...

                                                         Oscar Wilde: Heretic

Those who transcend Hive Morality - cranks, neophiles, inventors, deviates, heretics - drive human evolution. The drag on cultural evolution - the Authoritarians, the inflexible Loyalists, the Sanctimonious about some Angry God they've projected from within themselves onto the rest of us: they are most of the Church, most of the Politicians and Legislators ("Well...let's look at precedent!"), and Mammon-worshippers. They're nationalists, often racists and small-minded loudmouths who say they're for individual liberty but do quite something else. These are the drags on progress. Haidt thinks they deserve to be understood by "liberals" because these people - the guardians of Hive Morality - don't want things to change, because it represents a threat to their status in the primate hierarchy.

Given my political bend, no wonder Haidt's equal Big Six doesn't wash with me.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Moral Systems: More on Haidt and Some Old School Stuff

Recently I wrote about Jonathan Haidt and his ideas surrounding his "social intuitionist model." He's been studying the deep psychology of morality for around 25 years. Early on he realized that moral values and decisions are based on emotions at the deepest level; environmental aspects came later: opinions derived from learning, experience in the world, etc. But the trick is: we're not aware of this. I think there's an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, if only in cognitive neurolinguistics alone, that supports this idea. (Will this ever filter down to Joe and Josephine Twelve Pack?) We think we're "right" and spent a lot of time being lawyers trying to prove our case, and when we're talking with people who have a different set of values, we're bound to not make sense to them, as they do not make sense to us. (I confess most of the time I listen to conservatives and think I understand them, but that if all of their ideas reigned, our species would end quicker than if all "liberal" ideas reigned. There's my confession for a Sunday, from a Mystical Agnostic Libertarian Socialist.)

The data set he used to come to his conclusions is largely based on an extensive questionnaire, and you can add Haidt's and his colleagues' data set by going to Your Morals.org. I'm about 70% done. This jit is extensive! But so far I'm being too dry about this. Here's a good one for us to ponder:

Remember when Andres Serrano came out with his work of art titled Piss Christ? He was being deliberately shocking, of course. Liberals tended to support his right to express himself freely, but conservatives tended to see Serrano's work as an affront to all they held dear. Now here's a question for liberals: what about an artwork that had a little statue of Martin Luther King submerged in the artist's own urine? When interviewed the artist said he just thought "the Left" had made too much of MLK's contribution to history, that the Rev was "overrated" and a "sacred cow ripe for hamburger meat."? Do you still feel the same way about "free expression"?

I like this one even more, and it's directly from Haidt and colleagues:

Mark and Julie are brother and sister. ("Ut-ohhhh...I think I see where this is going!") They go on vacation from the US to the south of France and have a wonderful time. One night, while drinking wine in Provence, one thing leads to another and they have sex. They use two different types of contraception. They really enjoy it, but afterwards decide to never do it again. The experience, they both agree, made them even closer. They swear each other to undying secrecy and indeed, they never tell anyone.

Here's the Q: was doing what they did okay? If not, why?

Now, I confess that when I first read this scenario, I only needed about three seconds to say to myself, "I see nothing wrong with what they did." Haidt says most people don't think it's okay, they often forget the two forms of contraception. When reminded they say, "Oh yea." And they're still not okay with it, and try to find a reason why. Haidt calls Qs like this "moral dumbfounding."

Haidt says liberals have a harder time with this one than conservatives, which I find puzzling. Then, in one interview - the one from The Believer - (see near the end) he says liberals highly value Avoiding Doing Harm to others. Incest usually means some harm has been done, so "liberals" try to find "the victim" to justify why it's wrong. Haidt identifies himself as a liberal - or he did up until around two years ago, more on this later - so he knows; because he's an insider/expert on morality he knows there's no victim, so he says it's a trick question. He seems smug to me there, in 2005.

I wonder if "liberals" really do try to find victims more than conservatives. I don't know. I'm dubious. But maybe he's right.

Okay, so Haidt and colleagues have decided there are Six core moral values in which moral systems are built: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity. (Earlier he had four, but he asserts coherent systems can be built on combinations of all Six, or four, and he even uses a Chomskyan term, "grammatical," in a sense very reminiscent of Noam's idea that there are countless possible sound-patterns and syntaxes, but only a few are/were used in the real world of humans speaking the world's languages.)

[An aside: 20th century conservative and champion of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Mortimer Adler, got together with a few tweedy friends and eventually decided there were 102 Great Ideas in the Western Tradition. I think maybe I'm morbidly fascinated about how intellectuals make their models, reify them, then move in, fall in love with their own models - Robert Anton Wilson called this "modeltheism" - and then push their models on all of us, in attempt to Enlighten us all.]

I like that, in a recent interview, Haidt says that there are no universal human moral values that are right; they are a social construction, and the proof being the very fact there are many moral systems in the world. And they're all right in their own way.

Here's where I part ways with Haidt: his data set is self-selecting. But worse than that, the Six seem arbitrary to me. But worse than that, even if we grant him his Six, he conveniently builds an edifice in which all the values are good, right, true and equal. He's in, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would put it: Mediocristan: he can use his data and a whole world can be built out of it - which he admits moral system are anyway: they're "castles in the air that are nevertheless 'real' castles, and we live in them," to paraphrase one of his lines. He can plot his values in some Bell Curvey-way and then come up with "insights" that help him build his intellectual capital. But it gets more and more puzzling to me from there on in...There's some horrible Platonicity in Haidt's scheme, as I see it.

Haidt was always a liberal, and really hated the George W. Bush administration, and he also says he despises the "current" Republican party. And yet, in looking at all his data and writing his latest book, he realizes that conservatives (I really wonder who these people are?) are playing all Six, while liberals only play Two of the Six: Care and Fairness. This is absurd to me on so many levels that this blogspew would be far too long if I enumerated why this is just...well...okay, I'll say it: stupid. Why? Read on. (I vehemently assert that I admire the attempt, though.)

Another huge problem for me with Haidt's system is it's synchronic. It doesn't explain history very well. I'm not sure he wanted it too. I think Haidt honestly and earnestly wants "liberals" and "conservatives" to  try to understand each other. One of his best lines, for me, is that he hopes liberals and conservatives will stop hating each other and see each other as part of a yin-yang. Bless him for this peaceful thought, for whatever it's worth.

I must amend something from the above paragraph, and it sheds light on another problem in Haidt's thinking here: if we're talking about deep, evolutionary time, clearly Haidt addresses this. He's read The Selfish Gene. He's well-versed in Evolutionary Psychology. And he defends religion against the "New Atheists" of Dawkins himself, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens: religion, although there's quite a downside to it, evolved so that larger groups of non-immediately-blood related people could co-operate and attain bigger goals. Okay: but the thrust of the book is about the fierce, ugly acrimony in Unistat today between Haidt's abstract "conservatives" and "liberals." The problem is: the partisan ugliness is fairly recent. Let's say 1980. Or 1960, to be charitable. This is why I leveled the charge of synchronic...I'm not so sure his evolutionary psychology is fully baked with the ingredients of the artificial construct of Pick Six Core Moral Values and then tabulated questionnaire data-world Haidt dwells in.

Anyway, Haidt was furious with W's administration, but now that Obama's in, time to collate his data and come to a better understanding.

But he goes to Occupy Wall Street's Zucotti Park and becomes a liberal scold, telling them "conservatives believe in equality before the law." (What???) Why? Because Obama's in now? Just HOW has Obama made that much of a difference from Bush?

Haidt had recently realized that "conservatives" are playing on all Six, and "liberals" on only Two, or maybe Three. He observes the Occupiers have no sense of Hierarchy, which is derived from one of the Big Six, Authority. Is Haidt even paying attention to what's going on in the world? Whether it was Liberals or Conservatives, they allowed the bankers, and the rich to plunder the economy. Obama has not made significant amends to the banking rules that allowed this to happen. People's lives are ruined; many are desperate. What a time to realize you're not a liberal! Especially when a long-term study by U. of Georgia and NYU scholars showed that the current Republicans are the most conservative in 100 years.

The Occupiers - as good liberal types - want Fairness, one of Haidt's Six. But if you've got your degree from a fine institution and can't find a job and your student loan debt is massive, how are you going to exercise your Liberty? And in doing the right things - working hard, delaying gratification so you can get your degree and go out and work hard, contribute Loyally to the country you love - how are you supposed to value Authority, when the Authorities have looted the treasury, stacked the deck in their favor, and pepper-sprayed you because you're trying to exercise your rights (Liberty) under the Constitution? (To those who watched OWS on TV and didn't actually hang out and talk with at least twenty or hundred people at rallies, and really listened, I can honestly report that, in my experience, about a third of the OWSers I talked to were thoughtful, patriotic, and brilliant young people. Another third were well-meaning but seemed - for lack of a better word - "lost" to me. Another third were Street People. And while I'm parenthetically ranting, furthermore, as an American, I'm disgusted that we allow so many of our fellow Americans to live like that..."disgust" is highly correlated with "conservative" values, according to some non-Haidt studies on social morality, but I wildly digress...)

This bit about "conservatives" playing with a full Six and "liberals" not seems ridiculous to me. The OWSers that were astute are not crazy about the Democratic party, but they see the Dems (and I concur) as less harmful than the Republicans, who seem to value whatever the Billionaire Class favors.

                            Gordon Rattray-Taylor. I'll be getting to him shortly, below.

Haidt seems to not see how Congress and the Presidency are bought. (Where's the Sanctity there?) Does he pay attention to stories about how the Conservative Supreme Court has ruled that  police can strip search anyone for any reason? That the Unistat Prez - whether under the "conservative" Bush or the "liberal" Obama - can kill, detain without due process, and torture whoever they want, all while talking about "transparency" yet becoming more and more opaque every day? Does he ever read stuff like THIS? What about this article, which I found via my colleague Annabel Lee at Double Dip Politics: is accurate, current knowledge about how the world works not a core moral value? I suspect he doesn't. Hell, I hope he doesn't or he's probably just another tool who believes that information "is" liberal. What world does Haidt live in, where, right when the country implodes, he writes a book extolling "conservative"s' morality of Authority, Loyalty, and Liberty, and he tells his wife "I can't call myself a liberal anymore." He's a "centrist."???

Oh yea: in passing Haidt says "libertarians" are totally different from liberals and conservatives. But I guess I'll have to get hold of his book to see if he says anything substantive about libertarians. My experience with libertarians is that they are smarter, but more disparate concerning The Six. I know libertarians who don't seem to care all that much about Three (Sanctity [unless you're talking about The Market or Mother Nature], Authority, or Loyalty; but they differ in very interesting ways about the Other Three (Care, Fairness, and Liberty). If anyone can flesh out Haidt on libertarians for me (perhaps you have the money to just buy the new book; I have to wait on a library list), I'd be grateful to hear it.

Someone once said you can't be neutral on a moving train. I have no idea what it means, brass tacks, to be a "centrist" in this world, 2012 Unistat. I think you have to live in Mediocristan to understand it. Richard Nixon would be an extreme "liberal" today. Haidt must be making some good money, or wants to please those who can make things even better for him. (<----That's me being a dick, blowing off steam. I apologize. That was below the belt. But I can't wait to hear him talk about how Romney's got a point on some topic, that strict Authority really is important, if you want all your taste buds firing on all cylinders or all your rods and cones seeing the ultra-violets when others can't, or the graphic equalizer in your brain is giving vent to the whole audio-political spectrum of values...)

Now: all I've blathered on here is subject to the same proto-sociology of knowledge contained in Max Weber's quote that "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun." But I can also take a page from Weber's student, Karl Mannheim, who said that knowledge will take on certain shapes for people depending on their socioeconomic status. I'm going Old School on Haidt here: he's doing really well as a Public Intellectual. I think he's honestly trying to solve a Very Hard Problem. And from what I can see from here, he's not helping things much. Now Haidt would say to me, "You admit you haven't read my new book. And I understand you're a struggling freelancer. Your politics and values reflect that..." Etc.

I bet I would like Jonathan Haidt if I met him. I would ask him what he made of studies like this one, which make a lot of sense to me. Or UC Berkeley's Jennifer Stellar and her colleagues' findings as explained in this article. Or, how do you explain the very many historical examples of people like Arianna Huffington and David Horowitz? Are the self-indentified "conservatives" who answered Haidt and Co's Qs roughly the same people Monbiot is talking about here?

Is the Daily Show's studio audience - packed with liberals - response to Elon Musk's response to a question about Musk's futuristic thinking (Internet, sustainable energy, and space exploration) solely due to their "liberalism," or are they maybe glad to hear something from someone who's a neophile towards scientific research? And this is something virtually non of their "leaders" mention, or if they do, it's really lip service?

Earlier I hinted that I preferred my Grand Narratives concerning Big Ideas to be diachronic, and explain things within a historical perspective. I'm biased this way.

Recently I re-read the introduction to a sleeper of a book - Gordon Rattray-Taylor's 1954 gem Sex In History. Rattray-Taylor says when he reads scads of history books the historians very often present a maddening epistemological problem, and one is "influence." Historians will explain that something changed because someone was influenced by someone else or some cultural event, or whatever. But, as Rattray-Taylor writes, "He seems to feel that the development of a trend has been 'explained' if it can be shown that the people concerned came under the influence of some similar trend elsewhere. Thus, historians have laboured to show that the appearance of a school of lyric poetry in twelfth-century Provence was due to the influence of Arabic poetry of a similar kind." Similarly maddening for Rattray-Taylor was the explanation of people coming under the "spirit of the times,"without explaining why  they came under the Spirit.

As you might have guessed from the title of the book, Rattray-Taylor's proffered explanation - which to me is just as great as Haidt's and I happen to like it more, and I do think these things are comparable and should be compared and contrasted and played with and pondered and possibly incorporated into a yet newer vision - is summed up by Robert Anton Wilson on a basic chart based on Rattray-Taylor's book, in Wilson's Ishtar Rising

Rattray-Taylor saw a yin-yang/pendulum-like cycle of oscillations in history's values, based on attitudes that emanate from deeper attitudes towards sex, and he's influenced a tad by Freud, but also other Germanic thinkers who came after Siggy. I will copy the chart out here, and then bid the blogspew adieu because, once again I've typed far, far too much and if you're reading this now I bet you're the only one who stuck with my harangue, but anyhoo:

Patrist (anal)                                                                      

  1. Restrictive attitude toward sex                     
  2. Limitation of freedom for women
  3. Women seen as inferior, sinful
  4. Chastity more valued than welfare
  5. Politically authoritarian
  6. Conservative: against innovation
  7. Distrust of research, inquiry
  8. Inhibition, fear of spontaneity
  9. Deep fear of homosexuality
  10. Sex differences maximized (dress)
  11. Asceticism, fear of pleasure
  12. Father-religion

Matrist (oral)

  1. Permissive attitude toward sex
  2. Freedom for women
  3. Women accorded high status
  4. Welfare more valued than chastity
  5. Politically democratic
  6. Progressive: revolutionary
  7. No distrust of research
  8. Spontaneity: exhibition
  9. Deep fear of incest
  10. Sex differences minimized (dress)
  11. Hedonism, pleasure welcomed
  12. Mother-religion
These are Idealized Types, of course. Most of us fall somewhere in between these polarized pairs of values, which I suspect can be plotted on a vast continuum. - the OG

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jonathan Haidt's Social Intuitionist Model

Haidt (say "height") hated the Dubya Admin, and identifies as a left-liberal-progressive. He's just put a book out called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (NB: Amazon blocked the actual current cover of the book, for reasons that will be clear when you click on the link to Chris Mooney later in this blogspew.) It was released less than a month ago, and it's getting really hot. I have not had a chance to read it yet, but I've been studying this guy's ideas for the past few days, and meditating. He thinks "liberals need to be shaken." Haidt thinks liberals misunderstand conservatives far more than the other way around.

                                                           Jonathan Haidt

A University of Virginia psychologist (now visiting prof at NYU), his "social intuitionist model" has its roots in David Hume, who wrote, in 1739:

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." For Hume, philosophers who attempted to reason their way to a moral stance started from highly suspect grounds: our passions are more basic, and we then begin to reason from there; we are like lawyers when we reason about morality: we want to win. We want to be "right." But it seems most of us are blind to our own passions, our own unconscious biases. Indeed, Haidt has a pithy line about this: "Morality binds and blinds." It binds us to others who share our passions, and blinds us to seeing things from the other point of view.

In explaining his title, The Righteous Mind, Haidt says, "An obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into our minds that would otherwise be objective or rational."

                                                              George Lakoff

All of this seems quite reminiscent of George Lakoff's ideas. Well, at first glance it does. Haidt's ideas about morality clash with Lawrence Kohlberg's and Jean Piaget's, who are far too rationalistic. Similarly, Lakoff went to great pains in his books Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't and especially The Political Mind, to eloquently show how 18th century Enlightenment ideas about rationality are all wrong; most of our what goes on between our ears is unconscious. As Robert Anton Wilson thought, there's a part of our brain - the frontal cortex - that fervently seeks to believe it's running the whole show. But it ain't so.

But wait a minute. Haidt is using Hume to ground his project. That's pretty 18th century and Enlightenment there. It's "empirical" to contrast with continental rationalism, but if you read interviews with Haidt he's far more with the Enlightenment rationalists than Lakoff is. Lakoff's work seems to me far more empirical than Haidt's, to me in my present state of ignorance. (I plan to read Haidt's book as soon as the 23 others ahead of me in the public library line finish their readings.) Others in the public sphere seem to think Haidt and Lakoff are basically on the same page. (See Chris Mooney HERE.)

I must say: Haidt's views make the topic of religious and political differences even more fascinating than they needed to be, for me. This area was already too exciting intellectually for me.

Aside from the link above, "Explaining Liberals To Conservatives, and Vice-Versa."
A 2005 interview for The Believer. Tamler Sommers seems to play the role of Socrates uncommonly well, and I thought Haidt comes off as a tad lame here.
A 2012 interview for Thought Catalog, with Haidt on his game and very polished.

Finally - I could go on ad nauseum, as usual, but won't - if you get into Haidt and his colleagues' morality tests (the links are noted in a couple of the articles), and note Haidt''s clusters of values, he seems to value tribalist modes of being far too much for my taste. He seems to bend over backwards to be ecumenical there, and I think it's a big mistake, but then...I'm unconsciously biased, right?

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Drug Report For April, 2012

Good Friday: 50 Years Ago
Today marks the (give or take a few days) the 50th anniversary of the Miracle at Marsh Chapel, on Good Friday, 1962, near Harvard University. Among psychonauts this "miracle" is usually thought of as an "experiment" and we call it "The Good Friday Experiment."

In order to get his doctorate in religion and society from Harvard, Walter Pahnke, quite cognizant of a group of renegade psychologists among the faculty at Harvard, decided to test some of their claims about psychedelic drugs and mystical experience.

                                           Stained glass window inside Marsh Chapel

Here's the basic experiment: 20 divinity students took part in a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, in which half were given a very large dose of psilocybin (the trippy active substance in magic mushrooms) of 30mgs. The other half received a pill that contained nicotinic acid (which gives you a red-faced, sweaty, flushing feeling), with some Benzedrine (garden variety speed). The administers of the experiment didn't know who got what (hence, double-blind). All of them were in the basement of Marsh Chapel while the live Good Friday sermon was being piped in from above. After 45 minutes, it was obvious who had gotten the Real Stuff; there was absolutely no need to to look at the coded data.

Pahnke, in order to "measure" mystical experience, used criteria formulated by a philosopher of religion, W.T. Stace, who said there were seven aspects of mystical experience:

1.) unitary consciousness
2.) non-spatial and non-temporal awareness
3.) a sense of objective reality about the experience
4.) a feeling of "blessedness"
5.) a feeling of "sacredness"
6.) a strong experience of paradoxicality about the experience
7.) inability to put the experience adequately into words: ineffability

Pahnke added two more of his own: "transiency" and subsequent improvement in one's life.

Of the ten who got the Real Stuff, five were positive on ALL NINE of the criteria. Nine of ten said they thought it was a "true religious experience."

Pahnke followed up the study 25 years later, and found seven of the ten who got the Real Stuff and nine of the ten who got the active placebo. All recalled the Good Friday Experiment as a positive time, and all said they preferred non-drug routes to mysticism. One of the trippers actually had a Bad Trip: seeing Christ on the cross and freaking out, so that Thorazine had to be administered, a piece of data that Timothy Leary often omitted when talking about this particular experiment

If you've never heard of the Good Friday Experiment, Google it!

Arachnid and Non-Arachnid Art on LSD
Artists' drawings done on LSD.

Spider's webs, spun on a variety of drugs, including LSD.

Opening Day For Baseball in Unistat, 2012: An LSD Story
Here's a picture of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis:
On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. There are entire seasons that go by and no pitcher ever throws a no-hitter (not allowing a single base-hit over at least 9 innings.) Other years it's done five times. At any rate, given the number of games played, it's one of baseball's rare events. A pitcher has to be very good and very lucky (hard-hit balls going straight at fielders for outs and not hits, for example).

The Pirates flew into San Diego on a Thursday, an off-day. The next day they would play two games - a "doubleheader" - against the Padres. Ellis rented a car and drove north to Los Angeles to see a girlfriend.  They dropped acid and listened to Jimi Hendrix, stayed up all night. Ellis woke up at 10AM, saying he probably only got an hour of sleep. He dropped another half of a tab of LSD, then his girlfriend, reading the newspaper, said something like, "I don't know if you forgot or whatever, but you're pitching game one of the doubleheader today."

Here's how cool Ellis was: he realized he could still make it if he caught a plane to San Diego, so he did, and missed the National Anthem, which is played just before the game begins. But he made it. He was tripping and sleepy, so he popped some benzedrine to get "up" for the game. Rare for San Diego in June, it was drizzling and misty, but the game would not be rained out. Dock had to pitch.

Standing on the mound, tripping, Dock realized the ball felt big, odd. His ordinary feeling of distance and perspective was screwed up. (Anyone who has been high on acid knows EXACTLY what this is like.)

His first pitch went 58 feet. The mound is 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate. Not good. But Dock's a cool cat, remember? One time Dock dove out of the way of a very sharply hit "line drive," but the "line drive" never made it back to the mound. Dock was at time "wild": he hit one batter and walked eight. But his fastball was humming. As Unistat Poet Laureate (2006) Donald Hall described how Dock described it to him:

Number one fastball was quick, and dropped off the table as it crossed the plate. Number two fastball rode up and in, disconcertingly chinwards. - from Dock Ellis In The Country of Baseball

Ellis said at times he thought he and his catcher had telepathy, or that the batter could read his thoughts, so he'd shake his catcher's signs off and choose a different pitch. His catcher (Jerry May) seemed to have a glove that acted like a powerful magnet at times; other times Dock couldn't even see it. Dock recalls staring at a batter, which some pitchers like to do to try to intimidate the batter, but Dock said there were times he'd deliver a pitch while he was still staring the batter down.

He struck out the last batter of the game on a curveball, which delighted him. Game over: Dock Ellis had pitched a rare no-hitter. Sometimes being "wild" throws the batters off, but Dock also had outstanding control of the location of his pitches when he needed it.

Over the years, many people have doubted this story. Snopes has it as TRUE.

Here's a wonderful animated version of this wonderful, weird incident, one that, for deep and fascinating reasons, people inside major league baseball would rather not even admit REALLY HAPPENED...although it's legendary among me and my friends. 4 minutes, 32 seconds:

A gonzo-ish journalist tries to replicate Ellis's mystical game on X-Box.

My favorite account of the wonderful Ellis game from 1970 is from Dale Pendell's indescribably wonderfully poetic and encyclopedic book on entheogens, Pharmako Gnosis. After his narrative about Ellis's exploits, Pendell, ends with this sentence: "Aren't steroids boring?"

From LSD to Neuroscientist
If you look for schematic images of serotonin, psilocybin, and LSD you'll see they all look quite alike, with slight differences. In fact, the two psychedelics are taken up by serotonin receptors after they cross the synaptic clef, blocking the normally "dampening" serotonin, in favor of information flow. Here's a blog post by a neuroscientist who, before he became a scientist, had quite a life as a drug user, including LSD. Innarestin' chap, eh?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Nick Bostrom, Simulations, Modal Logic and Imagination, Featuring Sufis, Sir Martin Rees, Threats To Human Existence, and a Possible Reason to Quit Worrying

In doing a worried backstroke through articles and book chapters on catastrophic scenarios, I happened upon a recent interview with a Transhumanist who I think is one of the brightest of the bright, Nick Bostrom. He argues that we're underestimating the risk of human extinction. You know: Fun Stuff.

I admit I'm bored by the Mayan calendar talk. I've never been a Christian, so I never took all the Left Behind books seriously. I spent maybe five minutes with one from the series in my hands, leafing through it, gawking at the prose like a rubbernecker at the site of a particularly gruesome highway accident. (Supposedly the series has sold 35 million copies.) The economic disaster stuff is, to quote Wordsworth slightly out of context, too much with me. I lack the ironic distance. I have plenty of ironic distance when I read/listen/watch Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, etc...but they're ultimately beastly boring to me. I check 'em out to see how bad "conservative" discourse can get. (O! True conservatives where art thou?)

Ya wanna know what really gets me going when I want that adrenal buzz of worry, fear, or paranoia? The idea that we'll get Artificial Intelligence going to super-human levels and it'll really do us some harm. I don't know where my Ironic Distance is - or if I have one at all - when I contemplate this kind of stuff, and I think that's why it "works" for me.

Bostrom, in the long article I linked to above talks about "anthropogenic" Existential Risks. It turns out Bostrom is one of the more interesting thinkers on Existential Risk out there. Later in the 21st century, it's possible we could be wiped out by malignantly intentional attacks or "simple" human error arising from hair-raisingly advanced technologies on advanced molecular nanotechnology, synthetic biology, or nuclear weapons. (How dull global warming, ocean acidification and collapse of ecosystems seem now in the face of such sexy existential megadeath killers!)

We could reach a stasis in which there's a permanent upper class that keeps everyone under control using surveillance and psychologically manipulating pharmaceuticals. A "global totalitarian dystopia," a "permanently stable tyranny." Designer pathogens are rapidly becoming a very real possibility. You can find the 1918 flu virus details online now; with rapid advances in sequencing and lab techniques becoming cheaper and easier to use...I can feel my heart rate speed up already.

And oh yes: non-anthropogenic risks are out there, too: supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, and something I'd never heard of until Bostrom put me straight: "vacuum decay in space."

I'm reminded of Sir Martin Rees's book from 2003, Our Final Hour. Sir Martin estimates a 50/50 chance humanity makes it to 2100. Here's Rees talking for 6 minutes on this delightful theme, from last November:

In the Bostrom article, it seems that most of the Experts assessing existential risk are slightly more optimistic than Sir Martin: they seem to be somewhere around 10%-20% chance we'll not make it to 2100. Here's a Silicon Valley rich guy - Rick Schwall - who's worried about existential risk, just to add more people to our party...

Anyway, I thought it slightly ironic that a Transhumanist is arguing that we should make existential risk a priority over present human suffering. But Bostrom has very rational reasons: if we care about people in space - in other words, on the other side of the globe -  simply because they're humans like us, then we ought to consider humans in time as well as space. They're still human, even if they haven't been born yet.

                                 One of my favorite living philosophers, Nick Bostrom, born 1973

The Sim Stuff From Bostrom
What a stimulating thinker Bostrom is, and never more than when he talks of his "Simulation Argument." (<------You can spend months studying this site and all the places it leads you!) This argument has a very long pedigree, but Bostrom's form was what took me, and note that Bostrom's logical chops are stellar:

One of the three propositions seems very highly likely true:

1.) Almost, or all civilizations like ours go extinct before reaching technological maturity. Technological maturity is defined as something like Ray Kurzweil's or Hans Moravec's wettest dreams: Artificial Intelligence carried to a profound degree, solving the death problem, end of economic scarcity, etc. This proposition has been written alternately thus: No civilization will reach a level of technological maturity to the point where they can simulate reality that is so detailed so that "that reality" could be mistaken as "reality."

2.) Almost all technologically mature civilizations (on any possible planet) lose interest in creating ancestor simulations, which are computer simulations so dizzyingly complex and nuanced that the simulated minds would be conscious, or believe they're conscious. Sophisticated beings so profoundly adept at technological manipulation aren't interested/don't do simulations of reality for ancestors. If these beings DO do these simulations, they don't do many, for varying reasons having to do with wanting to use computational power for other things, or due to ethical objections about keeping simulated beings captive, etc.

3.) We're almost certainly living in a simulation. Now. You and me and everyone we know, our entire history and world, possibly.

One of these three is almost certainly true, and Bostrom has a preponderance of math (that I can't follow) to argue that Number 3 is most likely: we're living in a simulated reality. Does this allay your anxieties about the future? Recently we read that Ten Billion Earth-Like Planets May Exist in Our Galaxy. That's just our crummy little galaxy. There are billions of other galaxies. And then there's the multiverse: an infinite number of universes.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We already have The Sims and many other technologies that suggest we ourselves are moving (with logarithmically accelerated speed due to Moore's Law and other factors) into a world in which we are simulating other realities and beings. Can we make them take-for-granted their world and assume that "Of course we're conscious entities!"?

Now: these advanced beings who may be simulating Us could be "here," because we don't know we're simulated. Or they could be Elsewhere. Does it matter at this point? And what's that goo on your computer screen? Did I just blow your mind?

Bostrom says it's possible that what you're in now is a "basement level of physical reality." But if any technologically mature civilization that hasn't succumbed to Existential Risk (I should've been capitalizing that term from the get-go: much more dramatic and befitting its own idea), and they DO do what we're already doing now in this reality, then they probably will run millions of simulations, because they can. The sheer number of simulations outnumbers the non-simulated worlds that we may encounter, so it's probable that we're living in a simulation. Here's a funny popular take on Bostrom's idea, from the NYT.

Okay, okay: I've seen some good guerrilla ontology in my day, but this one's way up there. If you're heard the Bostrom argument and either say maybe, yes we're living in a simulated reality and what of it?, or I see his points but refute him thus, or whatever, then you're seeing the Matrix for what it really is. Errr...right? Anyway, I guess if it's most likely (aside from certain named-biases Bostrom is quite frank about) that we're a simulation, why worry about anything? Oh yea: that whole discomfort and death thing. No matter how unreal we and our world "is,"or "are," it still seems too real to wish away. "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn't go away," to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, who knew a thing or three about simulations and irreality. (See below)

Still: we must admit that even if we're a very detailed computer simulation, it makes for wonderful novels and films that constitute a simulation inside a simulation...ummm...eh?

Idea: try spending a week constantly reminding yourself that your world and everything in it is being played out in some unimaginably complex hypermetasupercomputer program. Note if and how your perception of "reality" changes after seven days, and report your findings in the comments section. (I've done this exercize: It tended to sharpen my sense of irony, and really brought out the highlights in bold relief when I noted myself or someone else taking a relatively trivial thing a tad too seriously, but your results may differ wildly.)

Oh: another reason to worry about Existential Risk: we might not make it to the point where we can develop - reach technological maturation as a species - to do simulations of other beings...even though we might be a simulation ourselves. Uhh...I think? (Wha?)

I mentioned and linked to the idea that this is a very old notion, even older than Plato's Cave parable. It's like Chuang-Tzu saying he woke up remembering his dream that he was a butterfly, but then questioning if he was not really a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Or the counterculture intellectual Alan Watts, who, when asked, "What is life like after death?" And Watts quickly responded, "How do you know you're not dead already?"

Of course, this notion of fine-grained simulated realities that humans take "for real" is a favorite among science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick is the foremost example, using this idea as far back as the mid-late 1950s. See this list of books that use simulated realities and note how often PKD shows up.

[For readers of Wilson and Shea's 805 page Illuminatus! Trilogy, think of this theme of simulation and the Writer of that book?]

al-Ghazali the sufi intellectual and mystic, argued against Aristotle, who said the world had no end. Ghazali thought time was bounded and he developed an argument for many possible worlds, but that this one was the best one, because Allah is so great. I'm simplifying here, but in not only sufi but Hindu and Buddhist cosmology we see variations of these ideas appear. Other sufis were on board with many worlds, also...

The Many-Worlds Hypothesis (Everett-Wheeler-Graham) interpretation in quantum mechanics appeared in Unistat in the 1950s. 

In the 1970s in Unistat, in another area of the academy, logician David Lewis developed Modal Logic in such a way that (get this): Every possible world exists, is a concrete entity, that every world is set apart causally and in space/time from every other one, and that our world is one of those worlds. The only "special" aspect of the world we live in now is that we're in it. In logic, this is called the "indexicality of actuality."

I can go on and on with this stuff, because it's difficult to find good LSD these days, and I've found I can simulate a trip by reading wiggy academic books on logic, sufi theology, quantum mechanics, and philosophy like Nick Bostrom's. I don't trust that dude selling magic mushrooms in the park; give me my dog-eared copy of Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality or Nick Herbert's Quantum Reality instead. Just as good, and if things get too weirded-out, I can go for a walk.

I guess what I really wanted to do was to attempt to reassure you: no matter how Bad Things Get, you can always tell yourself, "It's not a big deal. I'm just playing out in some simulation run by some Being from a civilization that evaded its moment of Existential Risk." If it works for you, you can thank me later, no matter how fake I am.

Hey, that's what the OG is here for!

I watched about 12 "We're living in a simulation" dealios on You Tube. Some of them are pretty good, but are marred by stentorian voice-over, too-intrusive Carmina Burana-like music, or other little annoyances. I have chosen two videos in case anyone...well, in case.

Two good-looking philosophy students rap about Bostrom's idea. I liked the down-to-earthiness of them.

Morgan Freeman narrates a science channel episode that uses "God" as the Simulator. The CalTech scientist never mentions Bostrom; I don't know to what extent he's influenced by him or what. I liked this because of the illustration of our own ability to simulate virtual experiences, which eventually blur into "reality," or seem to: