Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Serious Souls: The Philosophy of Purpose

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen

In A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen give us a movie that refuses to be chewed, never mind digested. This is intended to be a compliment. A Serious Man has the substance of gristle. After gnashing on it for a while we try to remove it for inspection, hoping that nobody notices that we’ve bitten off something we can’t masticate.

Perhaps this impenetrability is the point. What could be more true to life than a work of art that defies explanation. Do the Coen brothers understand A Serious Man? I don’t know. Do they have theories? Perhaps. Are these theories exhaustive? Who knows.

The protagonist in A Serious Man, a middle-aged, married college professor up for tenure, starts looking for an answer, a solution, as the life he thinks he has begins to crumble. His pathetic fate, as far as we can tell, is both at once entirely his own fault and entirely unavoidable. In the Coen brothers’ universe being good, being serious provides no defense against catastrophe. And so it is in the real universe.

Thus are we thrust us headfirst into a contemplation of the philosophy of purpose as if into an oven.

We elected Barack Obama because he is a serious man, a man with a purpose. His purpose is to make things better for America and for the world we live in. (Many people would dispute this, I’m sure. But I’m not writing for those people, so that doesn’t matter. If you agree with me, you know what I mean.) We were sick of being presided over by a bunch of people with other purposes at heart, purposes less altruistic and noble.

As the Coen brothers wryly point out, having a purpose is no protection against the universe. As we have seen over the past year Obama’s purpose in all its forms has been undermined, denigrated, thwarted, and diminished at every turn.

But does this mean that there is no substance to purpose? Does the universal irony of inevitable failure, disintegration, and death mean that having a purpose has no purpose?

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

Cold Souls - Paul G And A Soul

To answer that question I turn to another interesting movie I saw recently - Cold Souls. In Cold Souls those burdened by a heavy, angst-ridden soul can have it removed. Life without a soul, it turns out, becomes much lighter and more fun for some. What use is a soul if we only suffer it? The movie asks. But as Paul Giamatti discovers, he misses his soul, he misses the ballast of that inner weight.

And there is the answer, lying like a penny on the sidewalk, waiting to see whether it will be picked up. If we have a purpose, if we perceive a meaning, then this perception has substance. Refuting or ignoring that purpose and meaning denies the substance.

By analogy, physicists have shown that the apparently solid matter that fills the universe is not as solid as it seems. Not only is all material substance made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space, but the tiniest components of matter present themselves as waves of electromechanical energy when we try to pin them down in space.

And yet to deny that the material world has practical substance would be to deny all of the information of our senses.

Matter is an illusion, but it is a meaningful, reliable illusion, one which shapes and defines our physical experience of our lives.

Having a purpose is the existential equivalent. Demonstrably irrelevant and illusory until we accept that it shapes and defines our spiritual or psychological purpose. This goes beyond cognitive dissonance. Denying purpose is as real as perceiving a mathematical absolute only to try to disprove it. (more…)

Inglorious Decision Makers

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Quention Tarantino - Inglorious Basterds

Quention Tarantino - Inglorious Basterds

On Friday night my wife and I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Having enjoyed much of Mr. Tarantino’s previous work (Pulp Fiction, in particular) I was anticipating with great relish another dose of his enormous flair for form, pacing, humor, dialog, color, and hubris. He did not disappoint. Bloody, violent, and disturbing, yes, but a great treat all the same.

I had two philosophical issues with the movie. One quite limited and aesthetic, and the other raising a broader question. The first I will explain by saying that I prefer solid wood to veneer. Veneer inserts a fiction between the viewer and the object. Solid wood permits the viewer to see the object for what it is. Tarantino’s script rewrote certain important, nay critical, aspects of the Second World War. While a pleasing veneer from a plot perspective, his choice seemed to me to be unnecessary.

The second issue had to do with something more fundamental. Ends and means.

The script bristled with rousting “let’s stick it to those krauts” moments with its eponymous hand-picked cadre of scalping killers bent on instilling rampant fear in the ranks of the German army. But once or twice I wondered whether Tarantino didn’t perhaps want us to feel just as uncomfortable about the brutality of the good guys as he did about the brutality of the bad guys. (If so, the movie perhaps ventured into new moral territory for Mr. Tarantino, who has previously cleaved to the open plain of moral expedience.)

The Inglorious Basterds slaughter and scalp and leave bloody mark on their victims, and we root for them, don’t we? I mean they’re fighting against the Nazi’s, after all. Later we see the self-important Nazi sharp-shooter hero turned actor picking off allied soldiers in a Goebbels propaganda movie and we’re supposed to feel disgust for him, aren’t we? After all, he’s fighting the allies.

After a while there’s so much wanton mayhem on both sides that we begin to lose sight of who holds the moral high ground. I was confused. I got the feeling that perhaps Mr. Tarantino was confused.

Top (left to right): Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor. Bottom: Kennedy, Stevens, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas.

Top (left to right): Alito, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor. Bottom: Kennedy, Stevens, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas.

But that’s not what I really set out to write about. I really set out to write about those inglorious basterds the conservative supreme court justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito. As written about in the NY Times, their recent majority decision on campaign finance puts the free speech rights of corporations and other organizations on a par with that of individuals, opening the door to an increase in corporate money in politics.

Lead dissenter, Justice Stevens pointed out that no new principle required overruling two major campaign finance precedents. “The only relevant thing that has changed since” those two decisions, he wrote, “is the composition of this court.”

The conservative justices sought to equalize the rights of corporations and individuals. But surely the freedoms of corporations or organizations should be distinguished from those of individuals rather than equated to them?

Society affords certain rights and privileges to its individual members by virtue of the fundamental equality it wishes them to have. This is eminently sensible. But to say that corporate entities inherit these same rights by default rests on nothing but a sleight of hand. Corporate entities or other organizations serve society only as far as they don’t impose on the general rights or wants of society. That’s why corporations are regulated, so that we can keep them in check.

The right of free speech implies the voice of an individual conscience expressing itself. Where in a corporation would you find that individual conscience? If it’s in one person, then let that person speak. If it’s in a board room, then let those board members speak. If it’s in the shareholdings, then let those shareholders speak.

Let’s be frank, corporate free speech implies corporate special interest. Permitting it willy nilly in politics further dilutes the voice of the average American citizen.

“While American democracy is imperfect,” writes Justice Stevens, “few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

Bravo, Justice Stevens. (more…)

Happy Go Lucky

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Sally Hawkins in Mike Leighs Happy Go Lucky

Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky

If you haven’t seen the new Mike Leigh film “Happy Go Lucky” don’t read this blog post, go out and see the movie. Also, if you haven’t seen Charlie Kaufmann’s “Synechdoche” go out and see that, too. I’d recommend seeing the Kaufmann film before the Leigh film.

In any case, Happy Go Lucky, for me at least, raised an interesting philosophical question. It also acts as a good foil for Kaufmann’s somewhat bleaker statement about life’s ultimate futility.

As I was watching Happy Go Lucky I found myself remembering feelings evoked by some of Leigh’s earlier movies. The driving instructor spewing vehement, paranoid rancor reminds me of the vehement, paranoid character in Naked, for instance. But Leigh’s dramatic point of view has broadened and shifted, well, dramatically, over the years. Once roiling with seething, unremitting anger and misery, his preferred outlook in Happy Go Lucky is decidedly positive.

Leigh’s embrace of the positive fascinates me philosophically because it doesn’t exclude the negative.

Sally Hawkins’ character, Poppy, chooses to remain happy, positive and joyous in the face of misery, anger, and negativity. She doesn’t ignore life’s hardships, she allows them in, tries to work with them. In fact, she seeks them out, stays with them. Again and again we see Poppy engaging with troubled characters, trying to coax them out of their dark shells, or to shed some light in there.

Life is, to some extent, how we look at it, Leigh says. Someone steals our bike; do we let it ruin our day, or do we express a little mischievous regret that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye?

Abandoned Warehouse

Abandoned Warehouse

Bad things happen to people through no fault of their own, of course. Terrible things. Things that can’t be recovered from. But there’s no harm in trying to shed light, to help people, as Poppy’s character points out. And many of us allow ourselves to be unhappy about things that aren’t really terrible or unrecoverable.

Kaufmann reminds us that each moment is infinitessimally brief, unrecoverable, irrelevant. Leigh gently counters that each moment is enormous, inescapable, and joyous. (more…)

Comebacks: Britney and Me

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, my 15-year old daughter, typically guileless, made a bid to watch MTV’s video music awards. “No way,” was the answer, “You have school tomorrow.” (She’s in tenth grade, and supposed to be making a strong start in a new school.) “But we watched it last year,” she replied, “Remember we saw Britney Spears…”

This sent me to the computer because I knew I’d blogged about Britney’s woeful performance at last year’s VMAs. With the help of the blog and my wife’s clam-like mind we recalled that we’d TiVo’d Britney’s debacle instead of watching it live. All of which is to say that my daughter went to bed on time and that this is a blog post about comebacks.

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

I’m back from the time vortex of school vacation. It feels strange to be blogging again. Having been out of the mix for a few weeks, I’m afraid that I’ve lost something or that some essential capacity has become stunted. The “me” of then seems more capable than the “me” of now. I feel a little bit like I imagine Charles Austin feels. Austin won the gold medal for the high jump at the Atlanta Olympics. When we couldn’t watch the VMAs last night (alas, our TiVo attempt this year resulted in two and a half hours of silent gray screen; don’t ask me how that happened) we watched a TiVo’d Austin trying to break the world high jump record for a 40-year old on the David Letterman show. We were all rooting for him as his shirt tipped the bar off its stays. “Tuck your shirt in!” I shouted at the screen.

Britney apparently made a successful return to popstardom on Sunday night, winning three awards. And while I cared momentarily about Austin’s high jump attempt, the objective distance I have about Britney’s success or failure as a pop star (I could care less) allows me to burrow in to the philosophical aspects of success and redemption.

Put simply, in and of itself it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a successful comeback or not. If Austin had broken the high jump record for a 40-year old, someone eventually would have outjumped him, or not. Austin will eventually pass on and those who know him will pass on. Britney will stop making music videos. And this blog post will get archived off to tape, never to be read again.

Ambitions, successes, failures, comebacks are all idealized narratives that we create or consume to accompany events that fill time. They exist in conceptual space, but not as real objects. The most obvious example of a counter-narrative is this: If someone prevails in a competition, others must lose. Letterman asked Austin about his three Olympic bids — gold in one, and what about the other two? “Not so good.” Not so good for Austin, but great for the guys who won golds in those competitions, and not so good for the other competitors the time Austin won.

This perspective can have a very freeing impact. Today I can sit down and write what I want to write because ultimately it won’t matter what I write. And even today right now it doesn’t matter.

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

But inner and outer narratives often keep us going. More so it seems in modern life we care about the narrative of life and experience life less in itself and more in the abstract. Which brings us back to Socrates, and, for once, it brings me strangely into apparent opposition with Socrates, who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, onto this I would like to paste the narrative that Socrates had in mind the kind of reflection that brings us deeper into reality rather than further from it… (more…)

Solving Problems - Where There’s Smoke There’s Cash And Mirrors

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Billionaires stubbing out smoking, brains logging on to solve problems, and mirrors as healing devices.

“I bid him look into the lives of men as though into a mirror, and from others to take an example for himself.”

- Terence

Roman comic dramatist (185 BC - 159 BC)

philosophy blog: mike bloomberg bill gates anti-smokingBusinessman, philanthropist, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in his $500M anti-smoking campaign fund. This may not seem like a whole lot of money when compared to the billions that cigarette companies make selling cigarettes around the world, but it dwarfs the WHO estimate of $20M per year currently being spent to combat smoking in low to middle income countries. The fund is expected to save hundreds of millions of lives over the next couple of generations. Yet another reason to shake our heads over the spending priorities of our elected administration (such as the decision to airlift $12B cash into Iraq without keeping track of where it all went…)

Pinky Dinky Doo

Pinky Dinky Doo

Not yet a potential target of big tobacco, my four-year old son fortunately wouldn’t know the Marlboro man if he rode in on his horse. One of my son’s favorite shows of the moment is Noggin’s Pinky Dinky Doo (parents take note — no ads on Noggin!!) Pinky, the show’s heroine, engages her little brother, Tyler, with stories related to a problem he’s encountering. At some point in every story, Pinky’s fictional self “thinks big” in order to solve a problem. Thinking big means thinking laterally, or outside the box. Very entertaining. And now I read that there’s a whole network of Pinkies (not to be confused with pinkoes) who can sign up to compete to solve problems and win cash prizes. “InnoCentive,” reports the Times, has “solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.” Cool.

Philosophy blog: elephant looking in mirror self reflection medical benefitsAnd all of this relates to mirrors how? I’m getting there.

It’s a little all over the place and fluffy, but Natalie Angiers piece on mirrors has some interesting moments. (I scurried off to research her claims about mirror images, thinking she’d got something wrong, but for the moment I have to admit she’s right and I’m feeling a little chagrined.) Here are the pertinent nuggets:

1. Scientists have been “applying mirrors in medicine, to create reflected images of patients’ limbs or other body parts and thus trick the brain into healing itself. Mirror therapy has been successful in treating disorders like phantom limb syndrome, chronic pain and post-stroke paralysis.” Wow!

2. “Subjects … in a room with a mirror have been found to work harder, to be more helpful and to be less inclined to cheat, compared with control groups performing the same exercises in nonmirrored settings. … people in a room with a mirror were comparatively less likely to judge others based on social stereotypes about, for example, sex, race or religion. ‘When people are made to be self-aware, they are likelier to stop and think about what they are doing,’ Dr. Bodenhausen said. ‘A byproduct of that awareness may be a shift away from acting on autopilot toward more desirable ways of behaving.’ Physical self-reflection, in other words, encourages philosophical self-reflection.”

smoker in mirror anti-smoking bloomberg gates fundSo if I imagine for a moment that I’m Pinky Dinky Doo and that Mike Bloomberg is offering a prize for the person who can come up with a device that would help people quit smoking, I’d say that he should use some of the fund to distribute hand mirrors to smokers or their loved ones so that they can watch themselves puffing away day and night and hacking up gunk first thing in the morning. Just an idea.

(I would say that he should send a big old mirror to George Bush, but the researchers have also found that not all conscious animals recognize themselves in their reflection. “‘Tellingly,’ said Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College who has studied mirror self-recognition in elephants and dolphins, ‘animals raised in [or preferring?] isolation do not seem to show mirror self-recognition.’”)

Related posts from around the web…

Gates, Bloomberg pool riches to fight smoking - Microsoft founder Bill Gates, left, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg walk on stage to announce their $375 million global anti-smoking campaign at a press conference in New York, Wednesday, July 23, 2008. …

What does an elephant see when it looks in the mirror? - But on further inspection it is thought that they may realise they are seeing themselves as they will repeatedly touch a mark painted on their heads which they wouldn’t be able to see if it were not for the mirror. … (more…)

New Yorker, Obama: A Second Bite

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Jean Cocteau“Art is science made clear.”

- Jean Cocteau

“your head gonna make a dead end on your street”

- Velvet Underground (White Light / White Heat)

Yesterday’s post left me with a disquieting murmur in the back of my mind. ‘Too easy,’ it muttered. And here comes Jean Cocteau to remind me that art is science made clear.

Can we criticize the New Yorker and Barry Blitt on social or political (or sociopolitical) terms for portraying the Obamas as a Muslim and a terrorist in the White House? No. Can we criticize them on artistic terms? Perhaps…

Decrying Blitt’s cartoon as tasteless and offensive doesn’t mean it’s not satirically funny; instead, it lends the cartoon a couple of the stock credentials of satirical humor.

Philosophy Blog: Barack Michelle Obama New Yorker Blitt Barry cartoon cover terrorits Osama Bin Laden White House American flag burning fireplaceTo understand the failure of the cartoon one must look to Cocteau: ‘art is science made clear,’ he insists. Considering the New Yorker’s high standards, does the cartoon make clear the science it satirizes?

Yes, and  no.

Yes, it parodies the ridiculous public fears and scurrilous Foxian paranoia about the Obamas as anti-American sleepers.  The New Yorker satisfactorily defends each subversive element of the cartoon (the Muslim garb, the gun belt, the burning flag) as a reinforcement of its plain and simple satirical intent — to explode the damp squib of right wing racism.

But… and here Cocteau helps enormously, it isn’t necessarily funny, because, despite all of these well placed clues, it isn’t made clear.

The New Yorker is a liberal magazine. I love to read it.  I’ve often said that I could be happy reading the New Yorker and nothing else.  (Not strictly true, but it has some damn fine writing.) It’s also, despite the wry, dry, sprightly daggers of its prose, an essentially sensitive publication. It skewers the bad guys. While for the good guys it reserves a blunted point.

Philosophy blog: New Yorker cover cartoon Obama Blitt Barry Barack Michelle terroristsI worked so hard yesterday to repress this awareness. I wanted to laud the New Yorker and Barry Blitt. But as I scrolled through the New Yorker cover cartoons seeking out examples of the same kind of abrasive satire I knew deep down that I wouldn’t find anything quite like the Obama cover.

We see Ahmadinejad being being enticed to a game of footsy in the bathroom stall, Bush as a housemaid standing over a cigar-smoking Cheney, the neocons up to their necks in a muddy flood… Jubilant snickers at the expense of the bad guys.

But with the Obama cartoon, those at whom we would snicker are absent.  If we laugh at the cartoon, we don’t laugh with the Obamas and we can’t laugh at them.  The objects of our laughter, the conservative commentators and our narrow-minded neighbors, don’t even make the frame.  They’re nowhere but in the dim recess of the cartoonist’s mind’s eye.  Considered from this perspective, the cartoon veers toward the tragic. The victims take center stage.  But clearly the cartoon cannot be tragic if the supposed victims don’t know it. The Obama’s expressions betray satisfaction and mischievous glee.

Philosophy blog: Lou Reed guitar Velvet UndergroundIf the New Yorker in its cover cartoon had, as does the Onion in its copy, a history of satirical lampoon with no holds barred, the cartoon would make more sense; its art would be science made clear. But given the absence of this history, the cartoon’s immediate psychological impact tends to muddy its message.

Not that any of this matters in practical terms. The tiny fraction of the population who even read the New Yorker and would pay any attention to what it has to say aren’t inclined to think that the Obamas might be terrorists, no matter what cartoon it runs on the cover.

A couple more for Barry Blitt, with sympathy and respect…

“The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood.”

- Jean Cocteau

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown,”

- Lou Reed

Related posts from around the web…

Satire To Sue New Yorker - In an unprecedented legal move that should shakeup the dictionary industry already under siege by critics and linguists, Satire - the word and its definition - has filed suit against The New Yorker for classifying its cartoon depiction …

Why the New Yorker fails miserably at satire. - When you attempt satire, you start with the truth and present it in a manner that is powerful, gut-level, even shocking. So, where did The New Yorker go so terribly wrong? First they started with a fantasy - that the only reason people …

Did the New Yorker cartoon miss its mark? - So why the huge outcry over the messages contained in the New Yorker’s front page cartoon? Surely it should be taken as yet another in the magazine’s long list of playful, if sometimes controversial satire? One previous post-Hurricane …



Why Satire Is Tasteless And Offensive

Monday, July 14th, 2008

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama Michelle Obama muslim terrorist new yorker bbc bill burton satireThe New Yorker has a long history of offending people with its notoriously tasteless and offensive output of low-brow hackery. Obama spokesman Bill Burton rightly dismisses the magazine’s latest outrageous cover cartoon: “The New Yorker may think… that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama’s right-wing critics have tried to create,” Burton says, before he draws a fiery breath, “but most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.”

We agree, indeed. What else would we do, applaud the New Yorker for tackling head-on the kinds of issues that all other publications skirt?

Philosophy blog: new yorker barry blitt cover cartoon amajinabad iran bathroom stallSatire has no place in an enlightened society. After all, to appreciate satire one must simultaneously understand the direct impact of the satirical object as well as its indirect object. Surely we shouldn’t be expected to hold opposing or divergent concepts in our minds at one time, that’s just barbaric! This is one nation under god, godamnit!

I sympathize with Barack Obama or Bill Burton, or whoever it was who most felt the affront of the New Yorker’s tasteless and offensive campaign. Getting to be president is a sensitive business and one must protect one’s thin skin if one is going to successfully attain the office.

Philosophy blog: Obama Clinton New Yorker Cover CartoonRepublican opposer — John McCain — no stranger himself to satire, limped nimbly to Obama’s support, declaring: “New York can go take a hike! Oh, wait a minute, there aren’t any decent hiking trails around New York. Come to think of it, the only place you can even safely fire your gun in New York is from the roof of a New York City housing project, and who would want to set foot in one of those places…”

(McCain may be old but his mind wanders beautifully.)

Philosophy blog: New Yorker Barry Blitt cartonon cover satire ObamaSo, when you get your hands of a copy of the current New Yorker, be sure to set it on fire and toss it into the grate as quickly as you can. At least, tear off the cover and set fire to that… we’ll decide later what to do with the rest of it.

But before you toss the cover, take a quick look at the cartoon: See how Blitt has cunningly distorted Obama’s face so that it seems confident, unperturbed, wily even. What a scam, what a ruse.

Related posts from around web…

Mika: New Yorker Obama Cartoon ‘Dangerous’ - True, the Danes had nothing to do with the New Yorker’s publication of the Obama cover. But what more time-honored locale to protest an irreverent cartoon of a figure adulated with religious fervor? Mika has condemned the New Yorker …

Obama New Yorker Cartoon Cover Outrage! - Have you heard about Tina Brown’s provocative New Yorker cartoon magazine? Well, some wacky kids in Georgetown claim to have found some rejected Barack Obama cover illustrations, such as this one, showing the Maoist basketball Soviet …

New Yorker Cover - Both Barry Blitt, the cartoonist, and New Yorker editor David Remnick responded to the immediate outcry on Huffington Post. The Obama campaign called the cartoon “tasteless and offensive.” Remnick insists the cartoon “hold[s] up a …



Human Potential

Friday, July 11th, 2008

On human potential, personal development, and the philosophy of growth.

“Everyone is as God has made him, and oftentimes a great deal worse.”
- Miguel de Cervantes

“The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand.”
- Frank Herbert

US science fiction novelist (1920 - 1986)

Rational philosophy blog: Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraWithout reading too much into the respective literary ouevres of these two authors, we may not be surprised that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, observer and recorder of human failings and doomed repetitions, takes an essentially pessimistic view of human nature, while Frank Herbert, a creator of alternative realities, perceives unlimited boundaries for knowledge and achievement. (Herbert spoke with enthusiasm about the positive power of science fiction to point to possibilities, including potholes or chasms that we should avoid.)

Biographers describe Cervantes the young man as brash and idealistic. He fits Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s model of a person with a “fixed mind-set.”   “If You’re Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow”, in this week’s NY Times, discusses Dweck’s theory of fixed versus flexible mind-sets. In Dweck’s own words: “People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed tend to push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

Dweck believes that society’s obsession with natural ability thwarts our capacity for growth.

Don Quixote’s imaginary battles against windmills and flocks of sheep speak to me of his creator’s struggle with the idea of fixed potential. That Quixote’s engagements, won or lost, are illusory magnifies the futility of these attempts to conquer fabricated enemies and prove himself worthy of his love. As he grew up, Cervantes’ family moved from town to town, never settling. It’s easy to imagine Cervantes the brash, idealistic, talented young man wanting to achieve something real, but unable to stand long enough on firm ground to be sure of what was real, each move to a new place confirming the isolated and unchangeable nature of his self.

Rational philosophy blog: Frank Herbert Author of Dune Science Fiction novelContrast this with the assertion of Frank Herbert’s son that his father didn’t finish college because he took only to the courses that interested him, forgoing required classes. Herbert worked at writing for many years before achieving success, relying on his wife’s income to support them. He submitted his landmark science fiction work — Dune — to 20 publishers before it was picked up for publication by a smallish press.

Obviously, even within Dweck’s postulate, talented people can achieve success (Cervantes may be a prime example), but she claims that people can achieve more success if they maintain a flexible mind-set. (She cites several mighty examples from the business world — John F. Welch Jr. of General Electric, for his emphasis on teamwork over individual genius; Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of I.B.M., who praised ‘the thousands of I.B.M.’ers who never gave up on their company’; and Anne M. Mulcahy of Xerox, who turned an eye to morale and staff development even as she made tough cuts.)

If you’re reading this and thinking “jeez that sucks, I’m one of those people with a fixed mind-set;” I’d hold out a little branch of hope, attached to a big old tree of potential. To begin the conversion from a fixed mind-set to a flexible mind-set we need only accept the concept of self doubt. What if we aren’t born fully formed and unchangeable? What if we accept that growth is possible but takes work…

Related posts from around the web…

Mindset, it will profoundly affect everything. - If you answer yes, your thinking about learning is aligned with a key quiet leader principle and you likely have a “growth mindset,” a personal characteristic that Professor Carol Dweck says will “profoundly affect all aspect of a …

Fixed Mind-Set vs. Growth Mind-Set - The article describes the implications of the research of Stanford University Psychology Professor Carol Dweck. In an interview of Carol Dweck by Coert Visser, Dweck said:. People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill …

On failure pt. 2 - Rae-Dupree sums up thoughts from a 2006 book by Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” that describes two views one holds about oneself. We can think we’re born with talent or not. Whether we think we’re Picasso or a dolt …


Neural Pathways, Hypocrisy, And CIA Commies

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

On exciting brain research, insightful psychological studies, and the latest shocker from the ill-thunk war on terror.

Quotes of the day:

“I can’t speculate on previous decisions that may have been made prior to current D.O.D. policy on interrogations,”

Lt. Col Patrick Ryder, in reference to the Guantánamo interrogation training chart repurposed from 1950s Chinese torture methods that elicited false confessions.

“All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”

H. L. Mencken US editor (1880 - 1956)

Philosophy blog: core neural system connects to cerebral cortex mapping showsUsing structural and functional brain imaging, scientists now have unprecedented insight into the mechanisms of thought. Writing in the Public Library of Science, Liza Gross cites the ‘form follows function’ edict of architect Louis Sullivan, which itself echoed Aristotle’s essential philosophy of form, in describing the findings of Patric Hagmann, Olaf Sporns, and their colleagues. Hagmann and Sporns found that a dense set of core neural pathways acts as an interconnection hub to the brain’s cerebral cortex the home of higher cognitive thinking and self awareness. The elegant, symmetrical spread of pathways — like the branches of a tree extending from the trunk — correlates to the brain’s seamless processing of information on different levels and in different ways. (Gross’s use of computer technology analogies I find unhelpful. The brain is not like a computer, after all, a computer is, somewhat, like the brain.) Interestingly, the hubs correspond to a recently reported neural system that shows increased activity levels when we are at rest.

Philosophy blog: psychological foundation of hypocrisy obama mccainPsychologists seem to have uncovered where we aim some of that resting activity — self rationalization. (”The duality of virtue: Deconstructing the moral hypocrite.” Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in press. “Moral Hypocrisy: Social Groups and the Flexibility of Virtue.” Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno. Psychological Science, 2007.) The researchers devised cunning experiments to lure subjects into choosing an easy chore over a hard one while maintaining that they’d been acting fairly in leaving the harder chore for someone else. In the abstract, the subjects understood that choosing the easy chore wasn’t fair, but in practice most of them chose it anyway. But the true genius in the research came when the researchers asked the subjects to hold a sequence of numbers in their heads while they judged the fairness of their choice. All of a sudden they judged their actions just as harshly as anyone else would.

So, what kept them from admitting their unfairness wasn’t a failure to recognize it, it was a failure to admit to it. And the act of hypocrisy required considerable brain cycles.

Central Intelligence AgencyInterrogation experts should take note. If you want to extract an honest answer, break out the Sodoku puzzles rather than the water buckets and manacles.

Since form follows function, it is no surprise that the form of the administration’s war on terror has evolved into a horrifying, amorphous mess. The New York Times reveals that the interrogation chart used as a training device for interrogators back in 2002 derived from a 1957 article entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War.” Albert D. Biderman, a sociologist working for the Air Force, had put together the chart to document interviews with American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators falsely confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities (Chinese Torture Techniques - See page 4 of Biderman’s original report).

So, let’s see if I have this straight: In 1957, Biderman set out what Chinese interrogators did to obtain false confessions.  The army then used this to help them train the next generation of American soldiers so that they could avoid providing false confessions. And a few generations later the DOD used the same material to train interrogators on how to extract (false) confessions…

The only change made to the chart used at Guantánamo? The trainers dropped the original title: “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.”

No, that wouldn’t look good at all would it, using “communist” coercive methods.

Here’s the opening sentence of Biderman’s 1957 report: “The United States Air Force has expended considerable effort to get a full, accurate and meaningful account of what happened to its personnel who were captured in Korea.”

Related posts from around the web…

Better Brain Map - This is basically an outline of the wiring connections between neurons in the brain’s outer layer. This is the most complete mapping of the interconnected brain nodes to date. Apparently this is one of the first maps of the human brain …

Brain Mapping Initiative Reaches Core Of Human Brain - What is known of neural fiber connections and pathways has largely been learned from animal studies, and so far, no complete map of brain connections in the human brain exists. In this new study, a team of neuroimaging researchers led …

Moral hypocrisy emerges from deliberative processes: Study - … graduate student of psychology at Northeastern University. This study highlights that moral hypocrisy is controlled by a dual-process model of moral judgement, in which the prepotent negative reaction to the thought of fairness …

Are We Kidding Ourselves? - “Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control,” said Dr. Valdesolo, a psychologist at Amherst College. “Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions, suggesting that we …

US used communist Chinese torture techniques at Guantánamo - NYT: The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart … copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain …

Unconscionable - I’ve seen lots of commentary on the revelation that Bush administration torture techniques have been modeled on the work of the ChiComs but not much specific focus on the fact that the main purpose of these Chinese torture techniques …



Fraudulent Slips: Hillary Clinton’s Lethal Weapon

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

On Hillary Clinton’s unerring sense of footinmouthity.

Philosophy blog: Hillary Clinton Ted Kennedy Robert Kennedy presidential campaign 2008 democratic primary barack obama

Capitalizing on the tragedy of her inability to be sensitive, Hillary Clinton has once again demonstrated her supreme political aptitude for footinmouthity. Stricken with a malignant brain tumor she is not, but Hillary needs no excuse to usurp Teddy Kennedy’s tragedy and achieve her outrageous best. Is it her fault that Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of the year of his foreshortened primary bid? Of course it isn’t. Then why are people so bent out of shape that she would attempt to make political capital out of it…?

Jeez. Anyone would think you’d never seen a man shot before.

And now, with rumors that her fellow liability, Bill, is agitating for her to be Obama’s VP, one wonders how she’ll outdo Dick Cheney (remember him?) who managed to shoot his old friend in the head with a shotgun… (more…)