I’ll be watching “A Christmas Carol” shortly, and tweeting my way through, drawing connections between what’s in the story, and what’s in our nervous system.
As I’ve said before, Scrooge’s transgression is that he refuses to be “synaptic” – he refuses to connect with others across the distance at Christmas time. And when he sees the error of his ways an finds it in his heart to fix that, it resolves the tension that made his whole story possible.
I’m at an interesting juncture, these days. Christmas is coming, along with all the attendant seasonal festivities. Hanukkah is over, after today, while the holiday parties, shopping, gift giving, card exchanges, travel, and so forth, are continuing apace. For me, the activity continues till that magical week between Christmas and New Years, when my work shuts down, and I have time to decompress and catch up with myself and finishing off my book.
And in the midst of this all, I can’t help but see all the holiday activities through the lens that writing Beloved Distance has permanently installed in my world view. So much of what’s happening around us — the connecting, the joining, the increased communication and reciprocity — parallels what’s happening deep inside of us.
It’s all unfolding in a delightfully fractal manner. Like those myriad miniature biochemicals released into the gaps between our neurons, we flow into malls and main streets, exchanging money for goods, like so many neurotransmitters docking on their receptors and keeping the flow of information going through our wiring. And just as impulses travel the lengths of our nerves countless times a day, the highways are full of travelers, the vast majority of us (fortunately) getting to our destinations. Some of us don’t make the trip, or we turn back before we get too far down the road. And then there’s the return trip home, mirroring the signals from brain and spinal cord that get us to pull our hand away from the candle flame or get off the Lego piece hidden in the carpet at 11:30 p.m.
There’s constant interplay between our bodies and outward lives. The reduced daylight prompts variations on seasonal affective disorder, which compels us to make up the difference with colorful displays that light up dark neighborhoods. We compensate. Sometimes we overcompensate. But we tend to take over-the-top reactions with good humor, in fine “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” spirit.
“As above, so below,” some of my friends say. And so it is. As within, so without — the same kinds of connecting we do on a microscopic, cellular level are playing out on a macro level. It’s all there, if you know where to look.
This time of year, I think a lot about Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”. Of course, it’s a popular story that’s got enduring appeal. It’s been remade and retold many times over. The version I think of most is the 1969 animation. By modern standards, it’s crude. It’s more cartoon than animation. But it’s the version I love most, since it reminds me of my early childhood when I was enraptured by the story — as well as the medium. Back in the day, we had three (not 300) television stations, and not all of it was fit to watch. So, when something compelling came along, it had my full attention, and in this particular case, I just loved it.
There’s a reason that story has stood the test of time. It explores our most innate and essentially human activities — connecting and contributing during the Holidays. It’s absolutely synaptic. And even more importantly, it warns us emphatically against refusing to participate. Its warnings don’t just apply to our social experience — they also apply to our neurology. And when you look at “A Christmas Carol” through a neuroscientific lens, you can find a whole lot of correlations with our innermost cellular processes — and what can happen when those processes go wrong.
I’ve got to finish up my last morning of work before my holiday time off. But tomorrow I plan to live-tweet to “A Christmas Carol”, calling out the places where it’s all about our Beloved Distance and the good that happens when we turn our separations into connections… as well as the bad that happens when we don’t.
Within a certain context, the debate between free will and determinism is certainly useful — it’s made a lot of people a lot of money, and it’s kept a lot of brains busy for a long time. I think these foundational questions keep coming up, because they do serve a deeper purpose, as well — they help inform the meanings of our lives, and as you say, differences between the two mindsets color our attitudes toward punishment, crime, and so forth. So, maybe there’s something to them… though I do agree that the arguments don’t necessarily operate in the same “space”. They aren’t mutually exclusive; they can complement each other. The fact that they keep co-occurring in arguments over and over speaks to that.
It’s interesting… my own research into the neurobiological underpinnings of the human experience has led me to a deep appreciation of just how free will and biochemical cause intersect at the most basic, fundamental level of our lives — in the trillions of synaptic clefts that fill our system with a non-intuitively massive amount of separation. We’ve got a whole lot of distance embedded in our nervous systems (in linear 2D terms, over 2000 miles worth), and across those synaptic gaps, neurotransmitters are constantly at work. They’re active, right now, as I write this (and you possibly read it), transforming distance into intimate connections that truly (literally) enliven us. Neurotransmitters can — and do — exert a causative influence. And on top of that, they can be changed and shaped by our attitudes, our conscious behaviors, as well as how we choose to think and feel about things.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that rather than either-or, we have a both-and situation. And when we combine the strengths of each argument and see how they can co-exist and complement each other, it gives us a richer and more generous concept of humanity. It also gives us more to work with — and it lets us avoid sinking a lot of time into arguing about who’s right/wrong, so we can have productive discussions about how to actually address the pressing questions of our times.
How Philosophical Analysis Creates Useless Problems from IdeasInHat
Bad Philosophical Habits: Free Will and Determinism
Philosophical problems are a lot like habits, some are good, some are bad, and some never seem to change. This could not be truer for the dichotomy between Free will and Determinism, which has been debated amongst intellectuals from as early as 1525. Some philosophers champion free will, others champion determinism, and a select few suppose it to be the case that free will and determinism are compatible. To say the least, many great scholars have spoken of this subjects within their writings, for instance: Kant, Hume, etc. There have been numerous attempts to formulate a resolution to the dichotomy of free will and determinism, but none have been satisfactory. The reason, I suspect, this problem has reigned over philosophy for so long is because intellectuals have failed to take notice of one key detail: strictly speaking, there is no solution for the dichotomy.
To understand why this ancient problem has no solution, it is a necessity that we first understand the details which support the dichotomy: namely both, the meaning and usage of free will and determinism. After that, we shall be able to see why, in fact, the free will and determinism dichotomy is a pseudo-problem: a problem with no mind-independent solution.
I just read a fantastic article at The Atlantic – Net Neutrality Was Never Enough (how the internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life). It was a welcome respite of rational thought in the midst of the pitched battles raging to keep the (recent – and assumed good) regulations in place.
I’ve been on the fence, myself, about the issue. And I agree with the author that
In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.
With great power comes great responsibility, and it feels like we have some catching-up to do, as regards the latter.
In any case, it’s been tough to keep a clear head, when it comes to all the issues. The dire warnings about Terrible Things (with Capital “T”s) that can happen, if the Obama-era Open Internet Order were rolled back, sounded awfully familiar in form, as well as substance. This could open the door to despotism. It could make widespread surveillance that much easier. It could unfairly tax already strapped consumers and innovators. It was not a good thing, and we needed to join the fight to oppose it.
The combative tone was familiar and reminded me of so many other political flares that have been fired into the proverbial fog-filled atmosphere that hasn’t had a chance to clear the smoke from the last set of flares, before the next set get shot into the collective consciousness. Reading the warnings — how they were phrased, what sorts of imagery they used — sparked the same type of visceral sense I’d gotten during the last presidential election cycle. More of the same.
Of course, my sense of impending online doom is tempered by the fact that I was one of the first people I knew who actually embraced the internet before it was taken for granted. I lost count of all the hours I spent online at the local library in 1992, searching and researching and reading everything I could get on-screen on the dumb terminal that was connected to the fat pipe of the local community college. I was the first person in my family to have an email account. And I lobbied enthusiastically for my family members to get their own — especially my parents, so we could stop arguing about who said what, when (we’d have the email thread to confirm).
I can well remember the experience of having a computer that wasn’t hooked up to the internet. And I still get a visceral response to the sound of a 28.8 baud modem chirping and tweeting. I remember the surge of anticipation, followed by uncertain will-I-get-online-this-time? trepidation when the phone connection failed and the modem went silent… and then the satisfying prolonged digital siren song that meant I was connected after a second (sometimes a third) try. When I upgraded to a 33.6, it was a whole new world. And to be honest, I still kind of miss that connecting ritual. I might still have my old 28.8 modem around somewhere.
Those first few minutes of connecting back in 1995 were a mix of hope and trepidation, because A) I was about to connect to the rest of the world in ways that were never before possible, and B) it was going to cost me. I could easily run up a hefty phone bill, in the course of just goofing around. I’d done it before, by accident. And I didn’t want to do it again. I had to be vigilant. I had to watch my time. In 1995, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to splash into the pockets of my ISP, so I had to make the most of every moment I spent online.
When broadband came along, and I was no longer paying per minute for a connection, everything changed. And I’m not sure it was entirely for the best.
I do know this — while I’ve turned that fascination into a solid career that’s let me provide nicely for my household, I’ve also lost a lot in the process. All those hours I sank into activities which ultimately didn’t produce anything useful or life-improving. All the energy expended on protesting issues which turned out to be bigger than anything I could have influenced. The friends I’ve (re)discovered, then remembered why we drifted apart as the old irreconcilable differences seriously disrupted my peace of mind. And the shift away from spending an afternoon curled up with a book, to sitting hunched over my laptop. Carpal tunnel. Back problems. Headaches. Extra weight that took years to work off. Online life has given, and it has taken away.
Was that a real puppy? I may never know. All I know is that those 10 minutes … 10 hours… however many cumulative days… are gone. And what do I / we have to show for it?
Here’s what: A sense of connection. To the world. To friends, family, and compadres. To ideas, thoughts, and concepts that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Connecting online has become so easy, so relatively cheap, so ubiquitous, we just take it for granted.
Then along comes the reversal of Net Neutrality. And all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems.
Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes
And it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. Heck, that’s how it always used to be. The internet was slow and expensive and sparsely populated. And yet, we survived. What’s so terrible about interrupting our seemingly unassailable access to All The World All The Time?
Here’s what: It’s threatening our livelihood — as in, the thing that most bring us to life: our connections. The very idea of limited access is a dark cloud looming over the ways we’ve become accustomed to interacting with the world. And in a world where More Is Better, that limitation is blasphemy. How dare the ISPs and telcos that keep the floodgates of information open threaten the very lifeblood of our modern life? Indeed, the thought plunges us into a chasm of uncertainty. When internet connectivity is the one given in our otherwise uncertain lives, threatening that puts us all on edge.
Even people like me who don’t think the way things are now, is the way they should always necessarily be.
Yep, reversing Net Neutrality poses an existential threat of sorts. And that’s bringing out the worst in people, who subsequently rely on their persistent internet connections to vent the full range of their consternation. Not only might this endanger the steady stream of movies and sports and gaming and other entertainment we’ve come to take for granted, but it’s impinging on our very ability to express ourselves wherever we want, however we want, whenever we want. If the new order is (supposedly) going to cost us more to tweet and post and consume, that puts a serious crimp in our 21st Century style.
But this is about more than style. It’s about who we understand ourselves to be, and how we create ourselves in the world. It’s about just how much we’ve come to depend on connection. And yes, true to the prevailing theme of my life, these days, it’s about Distance… Separation… How we understand the gaps between ourselves and others, how we bridge those gaps, as well as how we increase our knowledge about certain topics and reduce the “conceptual distance” which separates the state of not-knowing from knowing.
The crisis about Net Neutrality is, in my opinion, as much about our human need to connect, as it is about the threat of surveillance, control, or throttling innovation. It’s about us retaining our self-determination in the face of a rapidly changing world. And the drama extraordinaire is ample evidence of just how central connection across distance is to our very existence.
If it didn’t matter, we won’t be getting so worked up. But clearly, connection matters — today, more than ever before. How we’ll continue to work with it, remains to be seen.
Like so many other people, this morning, I woke up to news that someone had won a hotly contested political contest, while someone else had lost. Actually — full disclosure — I couldn’t get to sleep last night, until I checked the news and found out what the election results were.
Some people are ecstatic about the results, while others are convinced it’s a sign of the Beginning Of The End. Some are chortling about their victory and pointing out how the losers are scrambling to regroup. Others are voicing various degrees of despair on Facebook.
So it goes. It’s never actually been any different than that for me, in the course of my 50-some years on this earth. I’ve been hearing dire warnings about our inevitable plunge into chaos, thanks to certain sorts of political outcomes. The warnings come from both sides, and they’re so similar, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.
It’s not the ideology and the platforms that seem different to me, rather the dire tone each side adopts to compel their constituency (both current and hoped-for additions), to join their side. Join the fight. Join the battle. Everything is on the line.
To say I’m battle-weary would be an understatement. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’re in a dire situation. I believe we are. I mean, look around — war and disease and pestilence are so common, they’re “old news”. The United States seems in a state of perpetual cultural warfare, with all sides utterly unmoved by the criticisms and complaints of everyone else. People seem to have dug in, and exit polls show how sharp the voting divides are, across race and gender. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of our socio-cultural deep freeze that seems to have completely immobilized us — like a tourist from Peoria frozen with fear as a charging hippopotamus bears down on them. (And yes, hippos are the most human-dangerous land animal in Africa.)
While it is encouraging to see some election results which lean in my preferred direction, the whole process sort of depresses me. Even if “my side” does win, as a whole community we still lose something. Every time we splinter into factions and go at each other over ideology or agenda, we pay a price. Some days, it feels like the only one fretting over the cost, is me.
But I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of people out there who are distressed by the ever-deepening chasms between various segments of our society. Rich vs. poor. Haves vs. have-nots. Whites vs. … er… everybody else. Cities vs. rural areas. Men vs. women. Powerful vs. vulnerable. At every single turn, it seems like we’re splintered along identity lines. And where identity isn’t clearly marked, people seek to create new categories that set them apart.
All this separation. Sigh.
And yet… Is the real problem separation? I’m not so sure. Indeed, I think the real issue is that we don’t really know how to work effectively with separation. We tend to see it as a barrier, and little else. Of course, separation divides us. That’s the point. That’s why we turn to it — specifically because it divides us, it separates us out. And there are a bunch of advantages to that, which I discuss in Beloved Distance. A sense of belonging. A sense of safety. Knowing whom to trust. Knowing whom to avoid. Separation is one of our most valuable tools, and yet it seems to be wreaking havoc with our world.
And yet, I have to ask — Isn’t there more to the story than just division? Isn’t there more to our experience than schism? Might our separation actually offer us something we need, both in terms of division and connection? Are we missing something?
I think, yes.
I think we’re missing a lot.
And because of that, we’re losing out on clues about how we can move forward.
By having this one-sided view of things, and not understanding — really understanding — what’s at work in our world, as well as deep within us, we’re passing up an amazing opportunity to step forward and head down a path that may not be all that clear and well-marked, but is still a path forward.
We don’t even have to know exactly what’s to come, or exactly how we’re going to get there. We just need to know that the path exists, and that we have the in-born capacity to really make the most of that path.
You can see current events as a scourge or a gift. I choose to see it as both. And I’m determined to find out how we can make the most of the whole range of these experiences we’re having. I have some ideas about how we can do that.
Back in February, 2016, I was roaming around the web, looking for interesting subjects to read, study, explore. I was particularly interested in neuroscientific and philosophical topics, and I came across mention of a conference called “Perceiving at a Distance”, to be held in Antwerp, Belgium the following June. As I read through the Call for Papers, and I explored the (now defunct and re-absorbed into the forgetful vastness of cyberia) it occurred to me that I might write something on “the fundamental ubiquity of distality”.
Well, why not? I’d been fascinated by the nearly impossibly small gap that separates each of the trillions of chemical synapses in our bodies and brains. And I’d been doing a ton of thinking about it. Noodling about it. Pondering it. Exploring the concept spatially and non-verbally, as well as in my own written notes. It had been some 3 years, since I’d clued into that, and I thought for sure I had something interesting to contribute to the conversation.
Namely, that as uncomfortable as it might make us, the basic nature of our existence is separateness. Everywhere you looked, everywhere you searched, you’d find distance — distality. On the outside. On the inside. It’s everywhere.
Yeah! The fundamentally ubiquitous distal nature of human existence.
What’s not to love?
So, I outlined a paper.
And I sketched it out.
And I filled in the gaps.
And the more I explored it, the more I realized was actually there. I was onto something, but I’d just begin to scratch the surface.
So, I kept reading. I kept writing. I kept thinking. June approached, along with the CFP deadline. June passed, along with the deadline, but by that time I was in too deep… in too far… and I still had a ways to go.
Anyway, time passed. The book concepts developed. The ideas gelled. And now I’m less than six weeks away from publication of a book that sprang from that original thought — that distance is very much a part of who and what we are… and rather than it being a bad thing, it can actually be a very good thing.
I’ll be posting pre-order links for the book in the coming week or so. Watch this space, to reserve your own copy of Beloved Distance.
When we think of our nervous system, a lot of us tend to think of it as a continuous, connected network that seamlessly transmits information immediately from the experienced sense to the brain and back again. When you step barefooted on a pointy building block at 11:00 p.m. when you’re turning out the lights to go to bed, or you brush your hand against soft fabric while you’re shopping for a coat, the experience is so immediate, it’s easy to think that the neurons transmitting the info from your skin to your spinal column and/or brain and back to your muscles are directly connected to one another.
History showed who was right — Cajal and others who agreed with him, with their counter-intuitive conviction that our nervous system had to be comprised of separate cells.
Indeed, our nervous system is comprised of billions of individual nerve cells (neurons), which aren’t actually in direct contact with each other. Oh, sure, in some cases, the connection is direct — individual neurons can be connected in electrical synapses, where tiny proteins join them at “gap junctions”. But for chemical synapses (the vast majority of the connections between neurons), there’s a tiny gap that is never actually connected.
Think about that for a moment. (It’s fun! I’ve thought about it for a number of years, now, and it never ceases to amaze me.) The vast majority of our nerves aren’t actually in direct contact with each other… Hmmmm… But they still manage to do their jobs getting sensory data — and more — back and forth in a dizzying, complex system of sending, receiving, decoding, and acting on signals. There’s all this electricity… all this chemistry… time, space, quality, experience… kicking of thousands, even millions of interactions, each living moment of our lives.
So, what does this have to do with the Holiday Season?
A lot, actually.
See, synapses are the connections — the bridges — which join all our disconnected neurons. And although they may be minuscule, they are incredibly powerful in their ability to connect. They’re built to connect, in fact. Their purpose is to bring together separate entities — axons and dendrites, for example — and get them “talking” to each other.
The fact that I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — is evidence of how well they’re working. Even if you’re not totally on board with what I’m saying, the fact that you differ tells us that your synapses are doing their job extremely well.
So, yeah. The Holidays. They’re a time when usually separate people come together in season-specific ways — families, friends, co-workers gather for meals and gift exchanges. We reduce the separation between ourselves with parties and get-togethers and reunions, and we connect in ways that are a bit different from our usual means.
We build special kinds of “bridges” in the Holiday Season — ways we can be more in sync with each other, exchanging presents to show we care enough to think about what would make someone else’s life a bit better. We donate presents, money, food, clothing, to put joy and comfort just a bit more within reach for complete strangers.
In many ways, the Holidays make us about as synaptic as we can be. And those who withhold, who don’t lend their support, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Ebenezer Scrooge is a quintessential example of the anti-synaptic human. At the time when the most connections are being created, he refused to participate… until he was brought back in line with a series of disturbing and alarming experiences.
Ultimately, he got back in line with the rest of humanity and did his part — even moreso. And there was great rejoicing.
The same thing happens in real life — on a micro and macro scale. We see the same dynamics that animate our cells, bringing this time of year to life. There’s correspondence. There’s similarity. Perhaps we feel that so deeply about hour holidays specifically because of the similarities to our most intimate inner processes.
In the spirit of the electrical-chemical-electrical sensory transmission process, I wish you the most synaptic of Holiday Seasons.