Sunday, November 21, 2010

Language and the Soul

Language – the ability to create and exchange meaning between individuals – is what makes us human and different from all other of earth's creatures. Without the ability to use words and grammar, we would not be able to think, plan and act. Thus its evolutionary value. Through language – and with the help of that other great discovery, control over fire – we have conquered the world and subdued nature. It was the bite of the apple that got us tossed out of Nature's Garden to make or break our own.

Think about thinking without words. Not really possible. Without words we might be able to store and recollect images – as we do in dreams – but we could not give them meaning, nor relate one to the other. We might be able to put images together into sequences – for example, how to shape an ax head from a piece of stone – but we could not pass that knowledge to anyone else except by showing. Teaching that way can work but is very inefficient. Perhaps this is why the technology of the Neanderthals changed so little over tens of thousands of years. Images could also be painted on cave walls or drawn in the sand. This would be a bit more efficient. But with language, what we learn can be codified and passed around and on. Knowledge explodes.

We are not the only animals that can communicate with each other. Apes, dogs, whales, ants and others do it through various means. But we are the only animal with words and grammars. Grammar allows words to become veritable skyscrapers of meaning. With language we can develop society, culture, technology, and history.

But think too about what language does for us. It allows each of us to become an individual self. Without words, we remain prisoners of our instincts and reflexes. We can only react to the outside, input determines output. After millions of years of evolution, the early hominids were very clever reactors. But to become an individual cable of rising above simply reacting to inputs, we must be able to think, to tell ourselves – to construct – stories of who we are, what we do and how we do it. We are what we can say we are. With language we move from being an “it” to being an “I.”

Everything modern science tells us leads to the conclusion that our mind is based on our brain and our brain on physiology. Yet we are also conscious, and that science cannot explain. It may be consciousness that provides the space for using language. Where does the next word that you will say come from? Who or what process is behind the curtain stringing our narratives together? Where exactly does it take place? Within our consciousness, we somehow generate our self using language. Then we somehow cross the boundary into the physical and our thoughts emerge from our mind and radiate outward through our brains into action, including speaking.

Perhaps we can call this something within a soul, with no judgement about where that might come from? And what might become of this soul when the body that provides it the mechanisms of perception, thought and language is no more?

Monday, October 11, 2010

America is waiting for a message of some sort or another

Americans of all political persuasions apparently are disappointed with our dysfunctional government. We want most of what government does for us – even in health care – but it seems that the system is broken. It feels like our leaders, parties and the way our government works just may not be up to the challenges we face in this 21st Century. Yes, Washington seems sunk in partisan bickering and knee-jerk attacks on whoever tries to do anything. But the very mechanism – designed in the 18th Century and last updated 100 years ago – seems woefully incapable of helping us make and implement the decisions we need to survive and prosper in the bewilderingly complex world we now find ourselves in. The Senate has become an arena for power politics fueled by all the influence that money can buy. The federal government – and most of the states – are spending more money than we have. Fortunately, the Chinese have little choice but to hold our dollars for us. But the debt we have run up measures a collective addiction greater than the most pernicious drugs. The Presidency is enmeshed in a bureaucracy of vested interests – within the government and within the ruling party. We seem to have entered the age of permanent war in which only the professionals fight and die. The whole system has become the tail on the dog of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us about.

We need to update how we do business, bring the constitution into this millennium. Whether by constitutional convention or through amendments, we need to seize back the initiative. The Founding Fathers were great men for their time, we need great men and women now for our time. Change in America is usually incremental. Our political system's great strength is our reliance on stable and solid rules of the game. But we need change; we all recognize this. Some may fear it. Certainly some may worry about opening the Pandora's Box as widely as a constitutional convention might. But we really cannot go on this way much longer and still maintain our leadership in the world and offer our children and grandchildren a return to the American dream that we boomers have let slip from our grasp. We need the sort of grand national conversation that a convention would bring on. Being democrats, sharing a belief of government of the people, by the people and for the people, we should have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Perhaps our national dialogue can be channeled through serious consideration by the Congress and then through state ratification of amendments we might agree on? Or maybe the Tea Party has accurately measured the times and we need something from outside the existing structures. Article Five of the US Constitution provides the various alternatives.

What might we need to change? Perhaps a parliamentary system might be best. Parliamentary government is more agile, allowing majorities to rule yet quickly recallable. But we Americans do like our change in small steps. So a couple of more modest suggestions:

To improve the efficiency and representativeness of our national legislature.

- Increase the term of office for Representatives from two to four years so they can spend more time focusing on legislating rather than running. Stagger the terms so that every two years, half the House is up for election.

- Increase the representative and deliberative nature of the Senate. Change the distribution of the Senate seats so that no state can have more Senators than it has Representatives. Distribute the extra seats to states according to population with no state having more than three. This would mean that states would have 1-3 senators roughly distributed every ten years according to the latest census. All senate terms would be concurrent and for five years timed to be open the year following the census.

To improve the efficiency and representativeness of the administration of government.

- Increase the presidential term to six years while retaining the limit of two terms.

- Mandate constitutionally that the federal government operate on a two-year budget.

To build into government and law some regular process of review that includes popular consideration.

- Mandate that all Acts of Congress be reauthorized every 25 years either by a 3/5's vote in each house or failing such action, by national referendum.

- This would apply as well to all departments and agencies of the federal government not explicitly named in the Constitution.

Change is the order of life. We Americans have lived in a political system resistant to change. That is mostly good. But the time has come to dig up the roots, prune the tree and replant in soil we can grow on. Let's talk....

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Largest Quantum Object - The Toilet?

Science News, in its September 25 issue, runs a piece on suggestions that gravity is a matter of entropy and information. I had a hard time getting this one. It seems to be a matter of looking at space as bounded by holographic screens that establish boundaries that create gradients leading to movement we call gravity. A black hole's event horizon can also be considered as such a hologram, containing on its curved, flat surface, all information about the black hole's interior entropy. I can follow the illustration of how a two-dimensional surface – a mirror – can contain all the information needed to record the three-dimension surface it reflects. But even if I understood how all this creates gravity, it would still leave the question of why the universe obeys the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics.

Anyway, what I really want to ask now is why toilets seem to work best when one lifts the top of the tank off? Improper flushing is a common problem with these wondrous contrivances. Sometimes handles get stuck or maybe the mechanism operates with insufficient oomph. When that happens, it seems that simply lifting the tank lid to see what is going wrong pretty much guarantees it will work properly (and that you will not see what the problem may be). Could it be that when the lid is closed, the toilet is a quantum object and the tank containing the water like Schrödinger's cat-box? When the lid is opened, the wave-function collapses and the object settles into the functioning state? This would make the toilet the largest quantum object know to physics. (It might also argue for transparent tanks.) Could this also somehow be related to black holes?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Freud and Plato - The Politics of the Soul (Pt 1)

Freud -- with Marx, Darwin and Einstein -- ranks among the intellectual fathers of the 20th Century.  The core concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis still pervade Western society.  We talk about the meaning of dreams, make "Freudian" slips, appreciate the power of unconscious desires and accept the influence of childhood experiences on the adult.  However, Freud’s relevance for the 21st Century lies more in his call for a renovation of human consciousness.  Freud's concern with the health of the soul and the support he sought to give to reason and intellect places him in a dialogue with Plato and gives psychoanalysis roots deep in Western culture.  Both Freud and Plato practiced statecraft of the soul, reforming the “inner city” that determines individual and collective character.  Both attempted to help the individual gain control over desire through establishing proper order among the parts of the soul.

As we move through these first years of the new millennium, it sometimes appears that the world has become too large, too complex and more dangerous and inhospitable every day.  We seem beset by nightmares: terrorism, fanaticism, fascism, communism, tribalism, nationalism, racism and the other -isms that have prevented us, as individuals and as societies, from thinking clearly and acting with humanity.  We paid dearly for these nightmares in the 20th century and the end is nowhere in sight.  We feel increasingly challenged to preserve a minimum sense of security and well being in the midst of the planet-wide struggle of billions of others to do the same.  In this struggle, our political systems -- the governments that oversee our domestic and foreign affairs and the organizations that connect us internationally -- often seem overwhelmed by the effort to stave off ever-threatening crises and disasters of one kind or the other.  No place, no one, no system appears immune to difficulty.  At a time when the major ideological and systemic competitors to Western liberal-democracy and free-market capitalism have collapsed, neither democracy nor the market appear to offer, by themselves, the answers we need to our many problems.

We in the West have been especially blessed by history.  But with an abundance of natural and human resources, a long and secure tradition of democracy and individual rights, and the strongest and richest mass economies the world has ever seen, we nevertheless remain afflicted by poverty, prejudice, racial injustice, declining living standards and political system mired in parochialism and shortsighted partisanship.  We have proved incapable of preventing the death of innocent men, women and children from terror, war, famine and disease -- which are, after all, largely the result of human action or inaction.  And although the world has providentially taken a step back from nuclear Armageddon, we are still poisoning our environment and degrading its capability to feed, care and comfort us.  To be fair, it is not that we are at a loss for ways to resolve many of these problems.  One can imagine solutions to most of them that could succeed if we were determined enough, worked hard enough and sacrificed enough.  Yet, when we are not dreaming, it seems naive to believe that we could ever achieve such outcomes in the "real" world.  So, our feet firmly planted on the ground, we hope for the best while fearing, more and more, the worst.

In all, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that we have reached a point in global history that demands finding new ways to live, individually and collectively.  We have lost our faith in ourselves and in our ability to reason our way forward.  After the terrors of the 20th Century, the Enlightenment and its faith in the ability of human intellect to help us perfect our world have come to seem like a bad joke.  The nightmares have entered our very souls and made us doubt our ability to think, reason, discuss and decide with our fellow human beings the many problems that we face.  Some believe that the only response is to trust instinct, listen to our blood, and fight to protect what we have while seizing the high ground before others do so.  Reason must be rescued if we are to find a better way. 

Freud can yet help us begin.  His conception of the human soul and the conflict within us reconnects our problems with the similar concerns of Plato and Aristotle.  Freud's work recalls Socrates' invitation, in the Republic, to establish within ourselves the rule of reason without which we cannot have just and well-ordered societies.  2300 years later, this solution remains difficult to achieve.  But after all this time, we have even more cause to believe that "knowing thyself" may be the only way to leave the nightmares behind.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I followed Lost since the beginning, on TV while home and however I could abroad. It was good TV and in the end, as profound as TV ever gets. The ending tied things up well and was quite satisfying. We can discuss the details maybe forever, but these are the basic insights I take away from Lost:

o The struggle between good and evil is real on the Island and in the world.

o This struggle never ends, some fall, others take our place.

o We are at our best when we are part of that struggle.

o The people we are closest to are the people we share the struggle with.

o Our guide in the struggle is -- as it was for Plato -- the light of the good. We can never grab that light but we can go where it shines brightest.

o We should do all we can to preserve the light, to do the good. That is the struggle.

o Life is a mystery and there are things that we will never be able to explain.

o Love is all that really counts.

The meeting in the Church at the end of Lost is just a bit of hopeful wishing. But who knows what comes after this life? Maybe there is a Valhalla.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A New Patriotism

The weather has been glorious these past two days. Went biking in Virgina this morning on the W&OD. On the way back, came to a stop sign on the trail where it crosses a road. A guy in a pickup, wearing a cowboy hat and playing country music on his radio, stopped, when he didn't have to, to let me go by without stopping on my bike. It was an act of kindness. Made me feel good and to realize how much we are missing when we don't try to treat each other with kindness and tolerance. What I think we have been missing for a long time now is the sense of being citizens, fellow citizens, comrades in a great adventure to see if government by the people, for the people and of the people can rise to the challenges that face us. We need a new form of patriotism in which we all recognize that whatever our different views, we are all trying together to get it right. This new patriotism - maybe just good, old fashioned civility - should start with recognizing each other as fellow citizens of this great country founded on the notion that freedom and democracy works better. Friendly kindness and mutual tolerance and understanding is patriotic and good for us.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Some Conclusions about Brain, Mind and Consciousness

The brain’s many organic processes most likely utilize quantum effects as well as classical ones. The classical elements include the physiology, chemistry and electro-dynamics of the brain. The quantum elements may include synaptic connections and large-scale, non-local coherence of brain functioning. The organization and dynamical functioning of these processes in networks and “mappings” – in the context of the shear complexity characteristic of the human brain – produces a tangled hierarchy that emerges as mind. Mind is non-conscious. Much mental processing goes on of which we are unaware. (We can be mindful about things that we remain unaware of at any particular moment.) Some of what mind contains may be/can be offered up to consciousness. The intersection of mind and consciousness produces self.

Socrates said: know thyself. Freud said: where It is, I shall be.

Consciousness itself is primary.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Role of Chaos in Human Evolution

Two terms need immediate clarification. The chaos I am referring to is the deterministic yet unpredictable kind. And I take human evolution to include that change accruing from cultural, social, political and technological processes as well at the slower progression through genetic natural selection.

The conception of natural selection as a form of progression flies in the face of the current politically correct tendency to question the notion that life is evolving toward anything. But the constantly increasing complexity resulting from chaotic processes applied to existing complexity has clearly driven an ever increasing individuation of life since its start a few billion years ago. Natural selection feeds on the random and unpredictable variation characteristic of all life - indeed of all material existence - and results in this progression from lessor to greater complexity.

Down to quantum level, all material processes occur according to deterministic laws even when the outcomes so generated are statistical probabilities. And as interactions between matter and energy become more complex according to these laws of nature – we live in the kind of universe that they do – the processes also become more chaotic. The result is that as complexity increases, it begets greater complexity. And whereas one stone is pretty much like any other stone, every single live organism is a unique individual. And the process of each individual organism interacting with its environment – also always changing – results in achieving various degrees of fitness. The important points here seem to me to be two: that it is individual differences that determine fitness and fuel evolution and that the more individualized the organism, the greater the possible points for chaos to operate.

A human being is a marvelously unique and individualized organism. We vary at almost every interesting point from all other humans. Our cultural and social variability adds extra dimensions to our individuation. Our accelerating technology allows ways of interacting beyond calculation and is a true chaos multiplier. The human race is by this point of time a realm of complexity that the earth has never seen before. Evolution from this basis promises to take us places that we cannot now imagine, if we survive at all.

Thus, everything that we do – to test our boundaries, to right the world’s wrongs, to struggle for our daily bread – and the way that we do it provides the raw material for evolution, for greater complexity. We drive change when we seek to effect our environment in our own way, even though we do not always succeed. In the chaotic processes of life, some win and more lose. (As Crash Davis put it: some days you win, some days you lose and some days it rains.) And in the end, it is not about us but about the fact that our species will survive only if there are enough folks pressing forward even when most of our individual efforts seem to fall short.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gods, Monsters and Americans

Was reading a book putting forward the theory of monistic idealism. The author notes an observation attributed to Mother Theresa that Americans are the most materialistically blessed but impoverished in spirit people on earth. This could actually be said about most of the people in the Western world but maybe of Americans the most.

The author (Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe) attributes this to America’s unquestioned materialism. We have lost connection with the world of enchantment in which we felt connected to something greater and more mysterious. I won’t gainsay this. But it may not be the whole picture. To judge from American popular culture – especially in the movies and TV that we export to the whole world – we seem to yearn for what we are missing. Living far from the US for the past few years, I see the reflections of this American preoccupation with particular clarity. We flood the ether with vampires, superheroes, ghosts, wizards and witches, psychics, aliens, magic, lost dimensions, time travelers, alternate realities, undead, formerly dead, demons, angels, devils, gods, mythical beasts and monsters. And I have no doubt left some out. We seem to have an utter fascination with things and beings which we in our day-today life know do not – cannot – really exist. What are these if not expressions of something deep inside of us that we feel the loss of, something beyond what science and modernity have left us? (There are other manifestations of this as well that lay at the root of the various forms of fundamentalism, including the political ones.) Some seek this missing dimension in religion, many look for it on the Sci-Fi network and Beyond.

Freud called this sort of thing the return of the repressed. For Nietzsche, it was the eternal return. It almost certainly is a return, a deep echo, of the pagan gods buried in our walls so long ago. And those gods themselves a kind of short-hand for that sense of horror and magic human beings first experienced when, a few hundred thousand years ago, we woke into conscious awareness of who and where we were. Americans are not materialistic as much as just a long way from home and very unsure of how to get back. And from the appeal of what we broadcast to the rest of the world, we are not the only ones.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tolling Bells

Siddhartha is said to have discovered in his youth four basic truths: that life contains suffering, that we grow old, that we die and that suffering originates in desire. The fourth is certainly an existential dilemma. But it is realization of the other three that brings home the existential truth of life. We of course know intellectually that we suffer and someday will grow old and even die. But the truth only becomes real when we feel these things in our bones, when we finally realize in our stomach that they apply to us.

A colleague recently died. He was a good man and just a bit older than me. He turned 60 which I will face next year. I’ve meanwhile experienced a certain minor but annoying health problem that affects my ability to experience the world. All of a sudden, I do feel quite mortal. This is not a profound discovery. After all, we already know not to ask for whom the bell tolls. It is always for us. But it is perhaps the start of true wisdom. For a long time I followed Socrates in believing wisdom lies in knowing that in the end we know nothing. But maybe it is really in learning what Siddhartha did.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Rise and Fall

Been reading an excellent history of Egypt, Greece and Rome. We sometimes forget that there were three thousand years of fully human history BC (and of course tens of thousands of years of human life, love and struggle before that). During the past several days – reading on the Esplanade in Darwin – it was the rise and fall of Rome. Very instructive. The reality was much more complex than simple rise and decline and Rome left an immense lasting legacy. But in reaching imperial heights – though its movement to empire was not in any sense planned, sort of like the rise of America as a “superpower” – it surpassed its ability to maintain itself. Is this what is happening to us too?

The world we live in offers an entirely new level of complexity (what John C Wright calls the Era of the Second Mental Structure in his excellent The Gold Age Trilogy). The many aspects of modern technology – the Internet and our growing ability to manipulate matter and biology – offer many more opportunities to correct, and also cover up, our shortcomings. So maybe decline can somehow be put off. Perhaps all this new stuff that we have seen grow into our civilization before our eyes will provide new forms of monasteries, hermitages, walled communities and the like for the next dark age (which was not so dark anyway). Maybe even some cyber urban centers where the barbarians won't be able to get us?

What can we do to keep the barbarians from the gates? Fully support those leaders who lean more toward empathy and adaptability even when they are imperfect, as they must be to be leaders in the world we live in? This means supporting guys like Obama and doing all possible to avoid the Republican dogs who just want to eat our bones while preaching at us.

Another may be to keep trying to be heard by talking with those who will stop to listen and talk back. This approach has not made great headway since Socrates tried it but the Internet provides more street corners to stand at. The other side of this is the need to be persistent, civil but persistent, in order to be heard. And then we must build on what we find with whom we find. (Socrates got hemlock for persistence so we do need to watch where we step even if we step anyway.)

These Tea Party folk show a possible further step. A movement of the civilized for civilization. Possible?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


The Greeks elaborated tragedy out of the Dionysia, yearly festivals of sexual abandon. Yet their central theme and pre-occupation was the realization that we can never know for sure the results of our choices and actions but must nevertheless choose and act. We can never know for sure the right path to take nor once chosen can we be sure we have avoided the wrong path. We can never be sure what the gods have in store for us. Sometimes, we must chose between alternatives both with equal claim on us but also mutually exclusive. Often we must choose between alternatives mixing the good and the bad. And yet we must choose.

The tragic flaw is that in our character, in our pattern of being, which leads us to err, to choose, in a way that we and others may be able to predict but which we are powerless to avoid. Confronted by choice and even knowing the good, we choose through emotion, our reason overcome, and in a way that lends a special sense of doom to our actions.

Bad choices are bad choices and often tragic in their outcome. Tragic in that they force good people into situations where their choices are between actions equally bad. Witness Bush's decision to invade Iraq with the many compromising choices it forced on the millions of people affected by that decision.

Tragedy lies in those occasions where their are no completely good choices but we must nevertheless act, when even inaction would be a choice. To create tragic situations is evil, as the Greeks came to understand of their gods.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Words and desires

Freud noted that we try to control our desires -- assimilate them into our psychic unity -- by fixing them to words. Words are old friends with whom I grapple constantly in the hope that somehow, they will free me. They do for the fleeting moment it takes to finish that thought. It is the desire that always remains sovereign and free.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

As of Now, what I believe

After years of thinking about consciousness, quantum mechanics and cosmology, I have come to believe that Mind had to come before Creation and that each of us individual consciousnesses is part of the larger Consciousness. I expect to rejoin that One some day, though hopefully not too soon. Of course, none of this is certain. And in any case, it doesn't always seem to help much in my trying to be as good a person as I would wish to be. I don't believe in original sin per se, but I do believe that we never really learn. What we say we are, what we say we want, is always at best more aspiration than reality and more often just another story we tell ourselves.