Why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to ethics

I’m in no position to substantiate or refute this, but I will say: Though neuroscience may be irrelevant for some, I find it incredibly useful as another source of information that helps us understand how we’re put together, and how all our parts work in concert. Neuroscience and philosophy comfortable occupy complementary “spaces” in my approach to understanding life.

I’m not much for the schism between body and mind. That strikes me as more useful for folks whose sense of identity hinges on their perceived ability to bend the physical world / experience to their mind’s (apparent) bidding. It’s less useful for me; I’m more interested in their interplay and understanding the unfolding dynamics.

I’m also more interested in seeing how each discipline makes room for and augments the other, rather than establishing how they disqualify each other from participating in our ongoing search for meaning. Why settle for less, when you can actually have (and learn from) both?

Footnotes to Plato

Benjamin Libet, neuroscientist

A few days ago, over at my other blog, I published an article that I touted on my social media as “the last piece on free will you will ever need to read.” That was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. The specific point of the post was to explain in some detail the ancient Stoic take on human decision making, what I and modern psychologists prefer to call volition rather than free will (given how loaded with metaphysical nonsense the latter term is). I also wanted to see how the Stoic position squares with the findings of modern science. As it turns out, that ancient view is highly compatible with what contemporary cognitive science says about the matter, but this is neither a miraculous coincidence nor indication that somehow the Stoics managed to anticipate scientific discoveries that would be made more than two millennia later. (Which…

View original post 2,649 more words

Advertisements

Why write? Why think? … Why not?

glowing light bulbI’ve always gotten in trouble for thinking the way I do.

Not necessarily for specific thoughts I’ve had, but the manner in which I think.

While some people think / philosophize / study in order to master a subject, establish their expertise, or carve out a corner of the intellectual landscape as their own, I think to explore.

Life is absolutely fascinating, and there’s so much to dig into… connecting the dots… seeing the correspondences… finding out what leads to what and what else is on the horizon.

Frankly, I’m more interested in asking interesting questions — with or without decent answers — than I am in reaching definitive conclusions. And that’s true, all across the board.

It gets me in trouble. It always has. And it’s probably not going to stop, anytime soon.

Some of my most dramatic troubles used to happen with a guy who’s now one of the up-and-coming stars of American philosophy. He’s published a number of books and a bunch of papers, and he was invited as a guest lecturer at a British university not so long ago. He’s apparently a pretty big deal in certain circles, and I’m really happy for him. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago, and he was amiable — a lot more amiable than I was expecting, actually.

See, he and I used to really go ’round. Our families were connected, and we ended up in each others’ orbits repeatedly. On good days, we had some amazing discussions. We could talk about just about anything, and when we were on the same wavelength, our exchanges were some of the most invigorating I can ever remember having.

On the other hand, if we were out of sync, he had a bad habit of attacking me. He’d get really intellectually aggressive, pressing me on points, not giving me much room to think… even physically attacking me on several occasions.

Of course we were something like 8 or 9 years old, at the time.

Back in the day, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal when we kids scuffled.  I often tussled with other kids — from the neighborhood or my own family. It was just one of those things we did. But the scuffling that happened with my philosophical compadre was… different. It didn’t seem to happen just because he wanted to horse around. It felt more like it was a direct physical attempt to dominate me, to put me in my place, to establish superiority over me, when intellectual attempts fell flat. If my self-created rival (who I always thought of as a friend) couldn’t win his point with words — because he was arguing to win, whereas I was thinking out loud to explore, and there really was nothing to win — he’d use his larger size and heavier weight to overpower me.

Literally.

Supposedly, he nearly killed me, once… according to my mother. She said something about him trapping me in a closed space where I could have smothered? I have a faint recollection of that, but it was really just one in an extended series of attacks from him.

He’s famous, now. He’s got a wife and kids, and he’s all set. I’m happy for him.

I’m also happy I’ve gone my own way. Far from that counter-productive sort of exchange, where there have to be intellectual winners, there have to be losers, and anyone who doesn’t participate isn’t worth the breath of arguing with them.

To be honest, I don’t have much use for that approach. I understand how people can be into it. I understand the draw. I’m just not interested, myself. I’d much rather find a meaty problem and dig into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies, ruminating, marinating, celebrating the intricacies of life on earth. A wide open world where there are no absolutes doesn’t intimidate me. It invigorates me. I figure, I’ll find out in the end… or not. Either way, it’s just how life rolls.

And life should be free to roll. No necessarily in ways that flatten others without regard for their well-being (because that would impact my well-being in turn), but in ways that widen the world and expand our options. In ways that add meaning to life and flesh out our purpose, that shine a little more light into the corners of our experience that often go unnoticed or undervalued. We’re learning so much more about neuroanatomy, so much more about biochemistry, so much more about how our “wiring” works — that electrical / chemical network that helps make us who and what we are.

The whole point of thinking and writing and publishing, for me, is to expand. My mind is pretty open, but it could be even moreso.  My options are pretty extensive, but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what else is out there? My understanding of life is finite and human, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grow in all directions. There’s a whole lot else I’m interested in finding out, and thinking, writing, philosophizing, are just some of the ways I have at my disposal.

So, why not use whatever tools and resources I have available, to see what else is out there?

Why not?

Let the live tweeting begin – #AChristmasCarol, viewed through a #BelovedDistance lens

christmas carol start

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.

Let the tweeting begin… The full thread can be found here: https://twitter.com/AuthorKLorraine/status/943826918108954624

The Beloved Distance of “A Christmas Carol”

christmas tree with synapses in the backgroundI’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.

Oh, this should be fun…

But for now, it’s time to get some work done.

What’s the *real* problem with the #NetNeutrality ruling?

steel cable frayed
It feels like everything is coming apart

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.

Where do we start?

namibia dirt road leading to desert
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.

Again.

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.)

Good grief.

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.

Seems.

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.

Watch this space. More to come.

 

Life is trying to tell us something

light streaks coming out of a burstWhen I think about philosophy, letters, learning, I generally get a visual of a medieval monk hunkered over an illuminated manuscript, toiling away in relative solitude, till the vespers bell rings. It’s not a negative image — it actually has really positive associations for me, since I myself love to hunker over books ‘n’ such in the solitude of my own upstairs study.

Or I think of professors delivering lectures before seminar halls filled with note-taking students. Tweed. I see tweed. Button-down shirts open at the collar, sleeves rolled up, hair touseled in whatever way. That’s a familiar sight to me, as well. At least, it used to be.

Or I think of a handful of philosophers (mostly men, er, white men, to be honest), gathered ’round in a office or cozy living room, holding cups of coffee or some other more “spirited” beverage, arguing the finer points of their arguments with gusto. I imagine them reveling in the exchanges, crossing metaphorical swords in bids to either win the point or at least sharpen their weapons and skills in the process. I’ve been in on more than a few of those kinds of discussions over the years. I’m not sure if I ever really won, but I certainly sharpened my wits in the process.

At least, I like to think so.

When it comes to learnedness, study, and devoting one’s life to the love of wisdom (the original meaning of the word “philosophy”), those are the standard-issue images and associations that come to mind for me.

And yet, when I think about my own approach to writing, reading, study, philosophy — which I practice pretty much daily —  I’m struck by the extent to which that happens far from the halls of academia. Indeed, I’m struck by the depth to which I believe that (for me, anyway), it all has to happen outside of academia. My inquiries, my readings, my contemplation, and my writing about it … that has to take place and unfold in the outside world, the everyday world, the domain of the mundane and unremarkable, the place of pragmatic, where gloriously pure theory has “fallen” to the realm of the applied.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the idea of pure theory. So long as it actually is pure, I’m all for it.

The thing is, purity has its limits. And those limits can make it not only impractical, but downright dangerous. If you consider a thing only in and of itself, without reference to how it intersects with other things, as part of an ongoing unfoldment of dynamic change, you can get yourself in trouble.

Killing dreaded pests with a chemical makes a lot more sense in a lab, where all you’re killing is the targeted pests. But if you don’t consider its effects on the rest of the insects and pollinators which further the cycles of life, before you take it out of the lab, and you don’t factor that in and adapt for it before you spray it all over every danged thing… Of you don’t consider the downstream impact of manufacturing bazillions of plastic bags, or improper disposal (read, dumping them in the oceans)… Well, you know…

And I wonder, in the face of the very real threats we’re facing on a regular basis, these days… where and what-for is all our education fitting in? We sink a sh*tload of money into our educations, and yet, here we are.

Here we are.

And the older I get, the better I feel about my choice to pursue my studies and thinking outside of academia. If I’d been independently wealthy, I might have spent a great deal of the past years in the Hallowed Halls. But I haven’t been in that situation — at all — so, I’ve been doing my thang out in the world, where I get to find out, up close and personal, just how well my philosophy works. I get to apply what I learn, and not only in the direct sense.

It’s not so much about brushing up on the latest digital marketing methodologies and search technologies. Nor is it about getting an MBA specific to a certain corner of the commercial arena. Nope, it’s broader and deeper than that — more humanistic, in a way. I study people. And not just in books. I look at the news (such as it is), and I watch what people do very closely. I read up on how we’re built, from our cells to our chemicals to our prostheses, and I think about how that affects us. How it shapes us. How it makes us function in relation to each other and the world in which we move.

Most of all, I invest time in thinking. A lot of time. Sure, plenty of people think through what they read / study, but I find I prefer to really, really think through what I’ve read, rather than devouring book after book. I’ve tried to push myself to read more. And it just doesn’t work. It’s like eating a meal. I need time to digest. I need time to assimilate. Once that’s done, I can move on to the next book. Or maybe I’ll wait it out and see where else my newfound knowledge will take me.

And as often as not, I find that life is telling me plenty that I need to know. One of the reasons great literary and scholarly works are so great, is that they help us make use of what the world has to offer. They have a sort of fractality, which mirrors our own grand dramas and dynamics in their more manageable collections of carefully chosen words. They can help us make sense of what’s going on around us, and they give us more tools / inspiration to deal more effectively with what is. Or at least give us some hope, however fleeting, that we might be getting somewhere in the whole grand scheme of things.

One of the things that’s made writing Beloved Distance so compelling for me, is the correspondence I’ve found between what’s inside us, and what’s outside of us. The same types of processes we find unfolding at the cellular level are also mirrored in our larger social lives. It’s been truly mind-boggling, at times, realizing how much a microscopic process can teach me about how to handle group dynamics… how to steer a project at work away from the proverbial rocks… or even adjust to the largest high-tech merger in history. The deeper I get into the neurobiology, the better I understand the biochemistry, and the more I just plain think about it all, the more meaningful it is for me.

And ultimately, the more useful it becomes.

You don’t have to be a nerdy-geeky type like me, to get a lot out of this kind of stuff. All you have to do is really think about it… and it can add so much to your life and your appreciation of what all the world has to offer us, in terms of lessons, inspiration, and rewards.

It’s all right there. For me, for you, for all of us. Life is trying to tell us something. And it can.

If we pay attention.