Archive for February, 2008

What is Art? Why Do We Create?

Friday, February 29th, 2008

On the function and power of creativity, and the particular value of music as an artistic medium.

Art Schop Recording Artist aka Martin WalkerArt Schop is a name I’ve been recording under for material that’s more spontaneous, philosophical and odd. This is the second year I’ve entered the RPM Challenge to record an album in the month of February. With a whole bunch going on this year and my wife pregnant (and therefore needing sleep when I wanted to record) I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But today, with her encouragement, I knuckled down and hid myself away and finished up. (This entailed writing or editing lyrics for several songs, recording vocals for nine of ten songs, and mixing all ten.)

Creativity is a funny thing. When you least expect it, something lovely happens. I wasn’t thrilled by much of what I had to work with this morning when I started, fragments of lyrics isolated from the music, and with the pressure of time thought that I’d perhaps get my album done, not much more. But in the course of a few short hours some beautiful moments (or so I hope) found their way out of my subconscious.

Heath Ledger Australian Actor who died 2008Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams had a house a couple of miles from where I live in Brooklyn. I saw Heath around a few times and our kids circled one another once at a local coffee shop. Apart from his talent and charisma, he seemed like a wonderful, warm, nice guy. I was very sad when he died. One of the songs I recorded today is in memory of Heath…

from here to there (song for Heath Ledger)

(A few of the other tunes are posted on my RPM profile.)

Where does the creative impulse originate? Why do people so love music, playing music and singing, listening to music, creating music?

When we create we translate a feeling or impression into some communicable form. Rationally then, the urge to create would seem to originate in the urge to communicate things that we feel otherwise unable to communicate fully. I could tell people I’m sorry that Heath Ledger died. But this wouldn’t quite capture the essence of my sorry, a whole mix of emotion and ideas. When I listen to the song, on the other hand, it expresses my feelings much more coherently, much more warmly, without the same archness or analysis that I’d wrap around them in conversation.

Art gets us closer to a raw form of communication, where the symbols of the art represent feelings that cannot otherwise be measured and processed for someone else to apprehend. It’s akin to a hug or a kiss or a touch.

Arthur Schopenhauer Philosophy of Music World as Will Art Schop Recording ArtistArthur Schopenhauer wrote about existence as having two aspects — our perception of it through our senses, which is an indirect representation, and the thing itself, which he called the “will.” Schopenhauer quite rightly stated that we can never directly apprehend the will. It will always and only be revealed to us through our immediate experience. For Schopenhauer, music came closer than anything else to revealing the nature of the will. Intuitively, Schopenhauer’s perspective on music has great weight. Just as music flows and never “is” so existence can’t ever be apprehended and stopped. Just as music follows forms and ideas, repeats patterns, so does existence.

(And we must remember that music originates from human perception via the subconscious. So any mirroring of the will in music is a mirroring of our perception of the will.)

People so enjoy art because it communicates to us on a non-verbal, emotional level; it is release and relief from our insularity of experience. And music has a particularly powerful aspect — it is immediate and transient, it flows. It cannot be frozen and held up to the eye. It forces us to submit to immediate, unstudied perception.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)

Global Ignorance

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

More on the philosophy of thought.

thinking philosophy of thought rational philosophyI wrote yesterday about how we don’t think as much as we think we think. I opined that perhaps that’s OK most of the time, but pointed out that lack of thought on some things can be dangerous. I’ve since landed on a few examples.

The faculty and administration at the University of Kentucky have been struggling since last April to dispel a baseless rumor that the school had dropped its Holocaust course for fear that it would offend muslim students. (The rumor began when a school in Birmingham, UK, stopped teaching a Holocaust class.) Thousands of people have gone to the lengths of sending e-mail to the university faculty and administration complaining of the cancelation… which never happened.

rational philosophy Common Core Advocacy Education Teenage IgnoranceIn another piece, the Times reports on a report from a new education advocacy group called Common Core. The piece tells us that many teenagers are woefully ignorant of basic aspects of history and literature. It then connects this ignorance to the focus of No Child Left Behind on reading and math tests, that have, apparently, reduced schools’ focus on liberal arts.

But the piece didn’t compare the ignorance of teenagers now to the level of ignorance prior to No Child Left Behind. Which left me curious. I dug out the Common Core report and found that it claimed that its methodology made such a direct comparison impossible. I then dug around and found an education advocacy website that had dug out Federal testing data that does show comparative numbers. Apparently, teenagers may actually know a little more now about history and literature than they did a few years ago.

No Child Left Behind(I’d love to take an opportunity to slam No Child Left Behind, but Common Core’s data can’t help me there!!)

Which brings us to the master of thoughtlessness, our current president, George Bush. Bush criticizes higher taxes for gas companies saying it will only make gas prices higher. And that we should be investing in oil refineries close to home to increase widespread use of renewable energy.

In each case, a little bit more thought would go a long way.

Before sending an e-mail criticizing an institution for some action or inaction, it would seem wise to verify that the source of our information is legitimate. A chain e-mail, for instance, shouldn’t be deemed sufficient.

As for the NY Times, it shouldn’t require its readers to go and fact check a story’s rhetoric. One would expect the reporter to have thought about the impact of the story and done the appropriate homework to verify its claims and hype.

renewable energy switchgrassAnd Bush should be enrolled in a class for remedial thinking. His over-simplistic and emotional reaction to energy policy ignores the basic problem. Burning hydrocarbons has a much higher price tag than the cost of extracting and refining those hydrocarbons. Reducing or reversing global warming, if it’s possible, will result in huge costs. We need to begin acknowledging those costs and collecting them now through a gas company surcharge or at the pump.

But how do we know when we should give things more thought? Ironically, I’ve noticed that I tend to prefix my own ill-conceived rhetoric with words like “I think” or “I believe.” When I can catch myself speaking from the hip, I can sometimes acknowledge that I haven’t really thought something through as fully as I need to if I’m going to express an opinion on it.

On a brighter note I came across a wonderful new venture — the creation of an on-line encyclopedia of species — The Encyclopedia of Life! A worthy effort to spread knowledge.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)

The Philosophy of Thought

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

On selecting apartments, predicting future enjoyment, and enjoying canine company.

apartment rental choice for rent sign furnished unfurnished conceptsMy wife and I, in the process of selling our home while renovating another, have found ourselves in a bit of a bind; it seems we will have to find a temporary place to live. Claiming short term reduction in her cognitive ability due to advanced pregnancy (who am I to claim otherwise), my wife has delegated to me the process of thinking through our rental options. I find the task and the factors to be considered bewildering: There is the cost of the rental accommodation, the number of bedrooms, the degree to which it is furnished or unfurnished, the minimum rental period, the broker’s fee, the location, the parking available… Each of these factors must be measured and compared through some system of relative importance that keeps tripping me up. Unfortunately, my wife’s cognitive ability is not so impaired that she’s unable to point out the flaws in my approach to solving the problem. I’ve realized that I don’t often think very hard about such things. That I tend to pick an obvious criterion and let that determine my choice.

Applying conscious decision making is quite hard. Made more difficult, no doubt, by our predilection for keeping our options open (as I wrote about yesterday).

lying on a beautiful beach predict future happiness enjoymentHarvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has conducted experiments that seem to indicate that people aren’t very good at predicting to what extent they will enjoy a particular activity, and he thinks he’s found out why. Gilbert believes that people compare enjoyment of a projected experience to certain imagined alternatives — lying on a beautiful beach versus sitting in a frigid office, for instance — whereas when lying on a beautiful beach the enjoyment will be what it is, no more or less.

This seems to coincide with common human experience: Fun things can be a bore. Dreaded things can be quite fun.

robot dog aibo sony comforts elderly in nursing homeAnd in another experiment, this one quite bizarre, researchers pitted a robot dog against a real dog in a challenge to see who could win the hearts and improve the spirits of people in a nursing home. The study showed that the real dog had little if any therapeutic advantage over the robot dog. (Any dog was better than no dog at all.)

These three examples can, I think, tell us a good deal about the philosophy of thought.

1. The perplexing apartment decision: We tend to think rationally and analytically less than we imagine we do. Much of what we pass off as thought results from a subconscious or arbitrary choice that we then rationalize.

2. The poor predictive ability: We aren’t very good at thinking about reality. We tend to color or editorialize our thinking.

3. The response to the robot dog: Our conscious thinking process can be easily bypassed or fused by emotional or subconscious impulses.

These phenomena seem to be connected by a common theme: We think less than we think we do; and we are perhaps primarily governed by subconscious or non-rational impulses.

But, rationally, this perhaps isn’t surprising. Much of what we do works just fine without overt rational analysis. The additional cost of analyzing something rationally doesn’t pay off. Further, to arrive at a rational decision can often be complex or impossible. with so many variables and so much uncertainty, thinking things through may be impossible.

The problem is that we’re often not aware of the difference between rational thought and rationalizing. We’re so used to sidestepping logic that we don’t always recognize and respond correctly to those situations where logic would really help us out. And in those cases, if we make a poor choice, we end up acting or looking stupid…

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)

Making Tough Choices

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

On letting go.

Hillary Clinton wells up with tears pensive sensitive side of candidateHillary Clinton seems to have been finding it difficult to pick her campaign strategy, vacillating between a softer, less strident tone and what has come across as a somewhat nasty tactic of questioning the qualifications and sincerity of Barack Obama. People differ on whether she should have been more ruthless from the start, or less ruthless all the way through; but all seem to agree that picking one would have been better than flipping back and forth.

After conducting extensive research through carefully constructed experiments, Dr. Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at MIT, has concluded, not surprisingly, that people like to keep their options open. But, more surprisingly, Dr. Ariely thinks that we like to keep them open not necessarily because we feel we need them, but because we don’t like to let go of them. Dr. Ariely found that his test subjects worked hard to keep their virtual doors from disappearing, even when they knew there was no cost to making them reappear.

No matter how carefully arrived at, the results of research can be misinterpreted. The test subjects can’t tell us why, on a fundamental level, they wanted to keep the doors from disappearing, so this becomes a matter of inference. But an incredibly valuable aspect of Dr. Ariely’s research seems to be that it gives us a tool we can use when making choices.

Once we are aware that we will be tempted to keep our options open, even when logic tells us that this is detrimental, we will be more likely to trust our logic and let go of unproductive options.

hillary clinton attacks barack obama in debate wise strategy or notNo one would accuse Hillary Clinton of being stupid. I am sure she understands objectively that it would be better, or would have been better, to pick one style of campaign and stick to it. But she was tempted to hold on to all her cards. Whereas, if she’d had the benefit of the insights from Dr. Ariely’s experiments, she may have been able to make the tough call and pick one strategy or the other. (Interestingly, this inability to let a door close seems to be the Achilles Heel of much political decision making. I wonder whether it played a role in Clinton’s initial support for and later distancing from the Iraq war?)

prostate cancer which treatment is best no-one knowsAnother example from today’s news: The NY Times reports that after a review of treatments for prostate cancer, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality could not determine which of those treatments to recommend. The article and those interviewed describe this circumstance as “scary,” “troubling,” and “disappointing.” But, as the article points out, in the absence of a prefered treatment, practitioners tend to select the treatment that they most ascribe to or feel most comfortable with. The Agency doesn’t say that any of the treatments being employed don’t have merit. And, in the absence of better data, it seems appropriate that doctors employ techniques they’re happy with. One can’t argue that it would be better to have better treatment data, but in the absence of better data, selecting the most appealing option and letting go of the others, seems a rational choice.

plethora of choice in supermarket good or badAs a more mundane case in point I am put in mind of grocery shopping. A trip to the supermarket for a few items can take me several times as long as a visit to the bodega around the corner, just because in the supermarket I feel obliged to weigh my options. Modern life presents us with so many choices that letting go becomes a more and more valuable technique in time management.

I would present more examples, but I have to stop somewhere…

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.


Virgin Births, Freethinking, And Adaptation

Monday, February 25th, 2008

On the reproductive strategies of Komodo Dragons — what they tell us, and what they don’t. And a parallel in the trends of religious affiliation.

Female Komodo Dragon Asexual Reproduction Virgin BirthNeil Shubin, associate dean at the University of Chicago and the provost of the Field Museum, tries to shrug off objections to cloning as “unnatural” by explaining that female Komodo Dragons, and other species, can reproduce without the need for male fertilization. Shubin reasons that this phenomenon, reported in Britain and Kansas, in which the offspring have identical DNA to the mother, shows that we’re on shaky ground if we turn to nature to determine that cloning is unnatural. Since nature can encompass all kinds of odd survival mechanisms, Shubin argues, when it comes to survival, “anything goes.” But in his rush to eliminate nature as an infallible moral compass (a sensible intent, since, as he says, only humans have a sense of morality) Shubin unfortunately shuffles out of the door the question of what’s “natural.”

Neil Shubin provost dean field museum paleontologist author your inner fishShubin’s argument goes like this: Cloning happens in nature (through the phenomenon of virgin births). Therefore cloning can’t be said to be unnatural.

He has, of course, stooped to a very basic form of sophistry by taking two different ideas and equating them. Virgin birth in Komodo Dragons has evolved over millions of years as a survival mechanism when male fertilization is unlikely or difficult. When humans clone a species we deliberately achieve our means with mechanisms that haven’t evolved. That’s the whole point of applying science to cloning — to hoodwink nature.

In amongst this sophistry though, Shubin points out that male fertilization persists as by far the most likely form of reproduction in Komodos, despite the possibility of virgin birth, because it mixes up the gene pool of the offspring and in so doing allows for adaptation. (Passing on the same genes makes adaptation impossible.)

“Without variation,” as Shubin notes, “the world would be static and unchangeable, and species would gradually disappear as they failed to meet challenges…”

Pew Forum Religious Survey Photo Not OK to Bash MuslimsThis put me in mind of a new survey on religion from the Pew Forum. In its survey of over 35,000 Americans (a relatively large sample), Pew found that “more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all.” “The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.”

Pew Forum Survey Shows that people change affiliation more rapidlyI should quickly state that non-affiliated does not necessarily mean non-religious; overall about 10% claimed to be non-religious (1.6% atheist, 2.4% agnostic, and 6.3% secular unaffiliated).

I’ve spoken at length in other posts that statistics mislead and get misused. But here I want to say something that would, I believe, hold true even if the statistics told another story; it would just lead to a different prediction.

The decision to change one’s religious affiliation requires as a prerequisite some openness to the idea of change. In making such a change one must be prepared to let go of the old affiliation in favor of the new one. In this way the process is analagous to evolution. Just as the body of an organism responds to physical impulses, so, too, our consciousness responds to mental impulses. And just as the natural world would be static and unchangeable without variation, so, too, the world of ideas would be static and unchangeable without variation.

If we take the Pew statistics at face value, they indicate that the world of ideas has begun to bring about a move away from particular religious affiliation, particularly in young people. Depending on our own religious beliefs, we may wish this to be otherwise. But we cannot argue that the capacity for change, the flexibility and adaptability of beliefs is a healthy sign — it is the evolution of consciousness.

Now for the subjective, but rational, commentary: I am not surprised by the trend that is apparently revealed in the Pew survey. It tracks with similar surveys in Europe (although charting a less dramatic move toward secularism than Europe has seen). And it makes rational sense. Relgions started out as mechanisms by which people tried to make sense of the world. Inspired by doubt, wonder, and fear, early humans invested inanimate objects with the power of deities. Once these inanimate objects were more fully understood, the sense of the divine moved ever further from the tangible world until in more recent times it became invested in an unseen, unseeable, omnipotent but ultimately elusive deity (after all, what was left?)

The more people become aware and convinced that existence can be understood without recourse to a god, the more they will be to change and even let drop their religious affiliations.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.


Drug Failures and Drug Addiction - Who Is Responsible?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

On the FDA, drug companies, and addiction to crack cocaine in Argentina.

fda food and drug administration lawsuits supreme court decisionThe NY Times disputes the Supreme court’s 8-1 decision to prevent liability lawsuits against drug companies if their products have been approved by the FDA. The Times argues that the FDA falls woefully short of ensuring adequate checks against faulty drugs and medical devices, and therefore that drug companies shouldn’t be immune from lawsuits if their products prove faulty. I see the point, but it seems ridiculous. Either the FDA should get out of the way, or it should do its job. Let those who have suffered from faulty drugs or medical devices sue the FDA.

crack cocaine scourge argentina brazil addict addictionThe Times also reports on the scourge of crack cocaine in Argentina. I’ve written about illegal drugs before, arguing that it is irrational to ban some drugs but permit others. I see the point of the mothers and families of those addicted — get the drugs off the streets; keep them out of the hands of our children and the world would be a better place. But I wonder how we can rationally draw distinctions between crack cocaine and, for instance, alcohol.

The distinction seems to be this — crack cocaine has no redeeming or redeemable qualities. As the story suggests, it is inevitably a pernicious substance. There’s no such thing as a recreational user, no such thing as a puff or two. I’ve never tried crack cocaine, so I’m presuming that I can believe what’s written about it. It is so highly addictive that casual, occasional, recreational use is impossible.

Laws, government agencies, police forces… Society sets up institutions in an attempt to protect us and keep us safe. We should expect these institutions to perform the kind of job we assign them, so long as we oversee them and fund them appropriately. But, while institutions should be adequate, they can’t be perfect, and we have a responsibility to ourselves to expect and protect against institutional problems, failures, and shortcomings. Holding the FDA responsible because it has inadequate testing for problematic drugs and medical devices seems appropriate. Suing a drug company because its product wasn’t adequately tested by the FDA doesn’t. On the other hand, if a company knowingly deceived or took advantage of the failings in the FDA, it does seem appropriate that the company also bears responsibility. (more…)

Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Kosovo’s independence, Serbia’s reaction.

Kosovo Independence Mitrovica, Serbia, BelgradeDo the roots of ethnic and national identification run particularly deep in the Balkans? Reading the latest news from Kosovo and Serbia, it seems so, but I guess not. No more deeply than in Chechnya, for instance, or Northern Ireland, or Darfur, or any of the many other flash-points around the world. But why do people feel so strongly about their ethnic and national identification that they’re willing to hate so deeply, fight so forcefully, and suffer so greatly to protect the concept of ethnic and political autonomy?

I’m not saying that people should not feel so strongly. They do, so there must be reasons. But what are those reasons and could we learn anything useful from understanding them?

social animals bonobo enhance survival by life living in groupsEvolution rewards species and groups that survive. Social animals enhance their chances of survival by living together, protecting one another, and competing against other groups for the necessities of survival such as food and shelter. The stronger the group identification, the stronger the cooperation, and the greater the chances of group survival.

But, in people, the process of forming and belonging to groups has evolved into a highly complex and, from a biological and micro-social perspective, largely artificial (because it is a mental rather than tangible) trait. An Albanian living in the north of Kosovo consciously connects his or her allegiance to Albanians in the south of Kosovo, but while this conceptual grouping feels intensely related to his or her survival, it in fact bears no resemblance to the cooperation of a tight-knit group living in close proximity with its members contributing materially to one another’s well-being… Or, to be more exact, it resembles that tight-knit group only in as much as the Albanian in the north invests his allegiance with the Albanian in the south with the same kind of significance.

angry serbs burn border posts in kosovo against independence of albanian kosovaOur identification along lines of ethnicity and demography can’t be defended as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Ethnic conflicts deplete the world’s resources by commiting them to weaponry and defense forces and result in the deaths of millions.

A Serb in Mitrovica wishes to remain Serbian because he identifies with the concept of being a Serb; Kosovo independence does not necessarily reflect a change in his or her chances of living a healthy, happy and prosperous life. Likewise, the lot of an Albanian living in Mitrovica doesn’t necessarily improve because he is no longer part of Serbia. I’m stressing the word necessarily because obviously when people define themselves along ethnic lines there are indeed practical implications of a change in the majority ethnicity of the ruling body.

By reflecting upon the processes of evolution and its translation into concepts and feelings we immediately see that our minds fool us into drawing unnecessary divisions between ourselves and others, divisions that ultimately hurt us all.

From a practical perspective, what can be done?

We need to teach practical philosophy in school. By drawing up curricula that examine these kinds of connections between the nature of existence and its impact on our world of concepts we can begin to teach children how to see the world for what it is rather than for what it seems to be. This suggestion is no more radical than saying that children should be taught that the earth revolves around the sun even though it seems that the sun revolves around the earth.

For more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.



Oscars and Art, Miracles and Myth

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

On what people want to see and believe.
No Country for Old Men Academy Awards Cormac McCarthy Coen Brothers“Audiences don’t want to see realistic films about the war in Iraq. They want to escape all the bad news.” So says Howard Suber (UCLA Film and TV Producers Program founding chair and author of “The Power of Film,”) reacting to this year’s decidedly gloomy crop of Oscar nominees. I agree. And then, I disagree.

Since the nominated films haven’t done well, relatively speaking, at the box office, Suber’s claim holds water; people tend not to flock to downer movies. But those who enjoy provocative, thoughtful films made with great craft and artistic vision do go to see the kinds of movies on the Academy’s short-list. The Oscars aim to reward notable artistic achievements in film, not rampant popularity. They provide much-needed counterweight to the rather less lofty day-to-day goals of the film studios.

This confusion of box office success and artistic merit masks a positive phenomenon in the American film industry — artistry can make its furtive way into movies that have no purported artistic aim, and block busters can have great artistic merit without needing to be labeled “art” movies. The movies “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” for instance, both big draws in 2007, both pitched and consumed as “raunchy comedies,” accomplished their low, uncouth objectives while revealing flashes of superior, if uneven, comic artistry.

In the American film industry, art will out, it seems, despite the drive for popular appeal and profit. Movies can’t be divided into “art” and “popular” movies, because some popular movies involve incredible artistry and some purportedly artistic movies are mediocre imitations or approximations of art. (Big names can make seriously flawed movies and pass them of as serious.)
The Academy then has a tough job, rewarding artistic achievements where they see them, without there being any kind of reliable delineation between the serious and the silly.

Pastor Casimiro Roca Chimayo, New Mexico miracle dirtPastor Casimiro Roca also has a tough job persuading his flock to give credit where credit is due. The poor priest presides over a small church in Chimayo, New Mexico, where people come seeking to be cured. Roca despairs that many of those who come believe that the dirt in a pit in the middle of the church has miraculous powers. Roca believes it’s the Lord. (The dirt he replenishes regularly, having it trucked in.)

It seems odd that Roca enables the perpetuation of the myth by importing the dirt and keeping the shrine, as he does, as something of a destination. But perhaps, like the Academy, Roca does what he does not in support of the masses but in support of miracles that reveal themselves despite the masses.
Postscript: As a rationalist one can’t dismiss out of hand things that defy our current comprehension. Reason must allow for doubt. Science has revealed its own share of completely unexpected findings. Einstein’s general relativity, quantum mechanics, and supersymmetry, for instance, all require us to move beyond everyday reason. The term miracle misleads, though, and perhaps when we come across evidence of events that defy reason, the term “unexplained phenomenon” is more appropriate. (more…)

The Dangers of Power

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

On the origin and philosophy of power: Fidel Castro’s resignation, Bush’s comments on African genocide, and Jefferson’s internal torment:

“Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” - Thomas Jefferson

Fidel Castro resigns as President of Cuba brother Raul set to take overIn 1959, Fidel Castro seized power from the dictator Fulgencio Batista so that Cubans could live more freely. Forty-nine years later, having been in power ever since, Castro has finally resigned. “I will not aspire to neither will I accept — I repeat I will not aspire to neither will I accept — the position of President of the Council of State and Commander in chief,” he said in his letter of resignation. The repetition, one thinks, might have been an unnecessary emphasis for anyone but himself. After he’d kicked out Batista, Castro discovered that for a person who likes to lead, and believes himself possessed with the capacity to make good decisions, it’s easier to assume control than to let it go.

Self-awareness provides the only anti-dote to despotism, and it needs to be administered in doses proportional to the power being assumed.

President Bush has been an avid critic of Castro’s and yet Bush himself has assumed ever-more dubious, overreaching powers, relishing his self-portrayal as “the decider.” In Rwanda today, Bush leveled a general criticism at the United Nations for its glacial responsiveness to humanitarian crises. But this was simply a convenient way to set into greater relief his boast of being a fast-acting and independent problem-solver. If Bush had a fraction of Castro’s sense of conviction and vigor, he would have been an even more dangerous and destructive force in the world than he has been. And that’s a sobering thought.

Thomas Jefferson - signing of the Louisiana purchaseAs president, Thomas Jefferson, an ardent critic of the abuse of power by central government, nevertheless found himself making autocratic decisions (the Louisiana purchase, for instance). Jefferson recognized his hypocrisy, understood the ramifications of his actions, but still did what he thought was wisest in the long term, even if it went against his principles of good government in the short term.

Evolution has developed in social species the desire for power and the desire to maintain power. On a biological level, power equates to the survival of one’s genetic code. If we cede power, our genes will soon lose out to more competitive genes. Evolution, therefore, rewards competitiveness.  Ghengis Kahn, for instance, while not a pleasant man, weilded considerable power and through brutal means assured that his genes would be passed on to future generations.

But this kind of social power, on a biological level, relates directly only to influence for the purposes of procreating. But in human beings the desire for power transfers itself to all kinds of conscious and subconscious activity. Unless we consciously moderate our desire for power through self-awareness, we will attempt to exert power indiscriminately.

Fidel Castro President of Cuba resignsThis leads us to be blind to our own flaws and to overestimate our own capabilities.

Castro wasn’t the worst leader Cuba could have had for the past half-century, but he wasn’t the best one either. The persistence and self-belief necessary to make a successful freedom fighter may well have been his achilles heel when it came to leading his country. And, as for Bush, he proves that even a very small aptitude and desire to lead can become hypertrophied given enough power.

For a rational, science-based explanation of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

P.S.: A couple of months ago, I wrote a song inspired by the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul - You can listen to “This Is Our Country” at and purchase a download copy for just 99 cents from the SnoCap store on this page.

Here are the lyrics…

Raul, brother dear, don’t let me down
Take our country now and lead it to your fullest
Remember, Raul, how we turned out Batista

Oh, the green dawns, oh the midnight raids
We have borne the weight of the revolution
Remember, Raul, these are your people

In Biran, where the cane stands tall and strong
Along the river righting every wrong
This is our country, this is our time

Raul, my brother, do not mourn me
Mourn your Espin, but do not cry for me
Remember, Raul, I am immortal

They could not kill me then and not now either
We have borne the weight of the revolution
This is our country, this is our time


The American Dream

Monday, February 18th, 2008

Economic and social aspiration in the United States of America: Spam, Gatsby, and ignorance.

spam spammers junk mail e-mail american dream commerce economyI just moderated five new blog comments. All were spam. It’s easy to dislike spammers; they fill our mailboxes with junk, cause us to peruse and delete multiple messages per day, or resort to services and tactics to defend ourselves against their relentless barrage of solicitations. But spammers represent a realization of the American dream. They seize upon their chance to sieve gold-dust from dirt. Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States does it say that citizens must apologize for doing what they do in pursuit of prosperity and freedom. Far from it, the constitution trumpets not only that others should expect no apology, but that there is no need for an apology.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald Long Island American DreamThe NY Times, in one of its pseudo-news, liberal fluff pieces (when I read these I understand why conservatives boil at the Times’ political bias,) attempts to find meaning in various opinions on why Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby speaks to people, particularly immigrants. The story misses The Great Gatsby’s introspection — it is what it is, a particularly engaging, somewhat over-dramatic picture of an America full tilt in industrial and economic momentum. Does Gunter Grass speak to German immigrants with The Tin Drum? Does Thomas Bernhardt speak to Austrian immigrants with Old Masters? Does Camus speak to French immigrants with The Stranger? Borges, Calvino, Fuentes, Amis, Faulkner… They write what niggles them, what gets under their skin.

Fitzgerald was niggled by aspects of the American Dream. He was niggled by its shallowness, its ultimate lack of fulfillment. And he saw its allure, its lure.

George Washington Lame Duck First American Dream DepressionIt’s President’s Day. An op-ed piece on George Washington speaks of his miserable last year in office. Washington felt overwhelmed by the burdens of office, disappointment at the squaring off of Hamilton and Jefferson. And perhaps disappointment at the path that the new nation had settled upon — freed from its ties with England, established as a power in its own right. One can imagine that Washington began to recognize that defining ones-self in opposition to something does not necessarily define ones-self for the better. Before Washington’s presidency, the nation’s conceit represented boundless hope. By the end of his presidency, this conceit was locked into a battle between options and opinions — between the vision of Jefferson, the creative, wide-reading intellectual, and Hamilton, the man of vigorous industry and capital.

Susan Jacoby writes about what the Times calls a generalized hostility to knowledge in America today. She complains that Americans compare poorly to those in other countries on matters of fundamental global knowledge and general awareness. While this is undoubtedly true, it seems reasonable to assume that this is a matter of emphasis rather than aptitude. Since America defines itself as the land of opportunity (meaning economic opportunity) and indifference (meaning, if we’re #1, why do we need to know what anyone else is doing?) we should not be surprised that these traits reveal themselves. For all their lack of global know-how, Americans reign supreme in getting it done. The 100 meter sprinter does not fool himself into thinking that he can win against the marathon runner over 26 miles.

But implicit in Susan Jacoby’s frustrations, implicit in the Times’ expansive, optimistic commentary on Fitzgerald’s legacy for American immigrants is the question of whether America’s choice of focus is a good choice, a better choice than others. Just because an American idol contestant doesn’t know the capital of Hungary, or that Hungary is a country, does this mean that America is on the wrong path, has made a poor choice of focus?

Thomas Jefferson American Dream Polymath Founder ConstitutionIt strikes me that this question shouldn’t be put to the nation. The nation has long since made the choice. The nation is far down that road. Any turning back, any deviation, would have to come through a collective decision to deviate. Plenty of people in America know that Hungary is a country. Plenty of people know the capital of Hungary. Plenty of people would ascribe to Jefferson’s view of the world as an endless wonder, worthy of our most intense attention. Only if and when the thirst for knowledge and truth outweighs the thirst for economic and material satisfaction will the American Dream begin to change. I say ‘when’ because all things change.

The American Dream that has survived these couple of hundred years has survived because its promise has never quite exhausted itself. But whether it happens in ten years or a hundred years or longer, the demographic of hope will shift. Just as Egypt, the land of Pharaohs and pyramids is today a crumbling wreck, so, too will one day the recollection of America’s youthful grasp for prosperity and power cause heads to shake in wonder.

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