Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando: Let Me Count the Ways

The people who were killed: May they rest in peace.

Their families and friends, and people who were wounded or otherwise terrorized: May they be healed.

The killer: May he rest in peace.

His family and friends: May they be healed.

The LGBT community: I have empathized with your suffering and persecution and advocated on your behalf for decades, been amazed and thrilled by the growth of tolerance in recent times, but recognize that you are still lightyears from being able simply to be yourselves almost anywhere in the world like everybody else would like to be. I see you as fellow Jews – the world’s pariah and whipping boy whenever any knucklehead wants to blow off some steam about anything whatever (including, apparently in this case, a gay who has been taught to hate himself for being gay).

Muslims: I just want to go out and say a kind word to any Muslim I meet today. There is absolutely nothing, no reason whatever, to single you out because of what some nuts do. It is beyond absurd (just as with gays and Jews and whoever else belongs to some supposed group that some people have irrational beliefs about) that Muslims in particular are any different from Christians, etc. (for better or worse). Again, as a Jew, I can particularly empathize with your situation. So I want you to know I am with you, 100 percent.

Gun advocates: Your right to own an AR-15 is based on absurd and macho motives having nothing to do with the pretexts you put out, such as for hunting and personal safety. You are either lying or utterly unaware of your own motives.

Malaria victims: 438.000 of you (mostly children) died last year. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

Children: Last year almost 6 million of you died below the age of 5, almost all (99%) in low- and middle-income countries. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

People who eat animals: You are perpetrating the most massive and horrific atrocity by far upon innocent sentient creatures, by the tens of billions. Where is the comparative attention and outrage?

Everyone: At any time a comet could be discovered that will hit the Earth (typically within nine months) and wipe us all out because we have not made the extensive preparations needed beforehand to deflect or destroy it. We are also currently vulnerable to largescale havoc from asteroid impacts and explosions, which we could relatively easily and inexpensively prevent if people knew and cared. Where is the sense of urgency?

Why can’t people simply be compassionate and rational?

Answer: Because we are the hodgepodge product of mindless cause-and-effect.

What to do: Strive to understand the causal mechanisms that inhibit or could enhance our compassion and rationality, and then apply these insights.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Technology and Inference

One can only be astounded by humanity’s ever-accelerating advances in technology … although I’m sure most of them have always taken place out of sight of the general populace. But every once in a while something hits the airwaves, and this latest leaves me feeling there are no limits whatever. Quoting one report (with my emphases) on the achievement:

On September 14, 2015, the two LIGO sites, in Louisiana and Washington State, independently detected a gravitational wave by measuring a discrepancy in the time the light rays took to reach a sensor at the ends of the tunnels. The precision of the measurement is simply astonishing. The difference in length that each light wave traveled corresponds to 1/1000th of the radius of a proton, a subatomic particle that is itself minuscule, with a size of about 10-12    meters. 

            But I am also astounded … and very pleased … that the real payoff of this technological feat must have come about by means of good ol’ rational inference and theory construction. For here (according to the same article) is what that blippiest of blips has revealed to us:

    The signal captured precise details about the two black holes that, within a fraction of a second, collided, coalesced, and produced the gravitational wave. Scientists determined that they were thirty-six and twenty-nine times the mass of our sun, with event horizons approximately ninety-three miles wide. They produced a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun. The difference in mass of the black holes before and after the collision was converted into energy in the form of gravitational waves. This is an enormous amount of energy, more than that in the visible light of all the stars in the universe combinedScientists were also able to conclude that the black holes merged about 1.3 billion years agoand that these ripples that stretched and compressed space traveled unimpeded to earth.

Quotations from:
After Einstein: The Dark Mysteries

Time Is Running Out

The Baby Boomers -- my generation – have always fancied themselves something special. This was due not only to our economic privileges as the wealthiest (young) generation in history (albeit not uniformly distributed, of course!) but also our numbers. My own intimation of mortality came a decade or two ago when I suddenly realized that, say, the Beatles would fade into history, and probably rather rapidly, like everybody else. Except … that didn’t happen! So our collective ego has been reinforced by at least one succeeding generation … and no doubt abetted by the eternal presence of the recent past on the Internet.

            Of course ours was also the generation that grew up with the fear of nuclear world war, which certainly would have ended things right quickly, with no other generations to succeed our massive failure. But side by side with that were inspiring spectacles of a high order, surely the “highest” (for me anyway) being walking on the Moon. (Of course this was not accomplished by boomers.)

            But then was an odd period of hibernation, when even landing on the Moon became a thing of the past, and the students I taught in college learned about it in their history books. The music deteriorated, making money came back in style, women became sex objects again, and a general crassness and indifference took over. We wondered – just like our parents – what are these kids coming to? (“We” being a subset of the boomers, of course, possibly even a very small one. I’ve never been able to figure out how representative I am.) Then religion made a big comeback, and the latest is … racism and bigotry! Oy. (In reality they may never have “gone away,” or maybe their current “resurgence” is more media phenomenon than reality. Again, it’s hard to know what’s what, even in, or perhaps especially in, this age of infinite access to information.)

            The most recent phase of the boomer saga, though, is what I want to write about. (By the way, that there is yet another “phase” is itself an incredible phenomenon to me. I feel I for one have lived through many generations and even lives. I can’t believe I am still alive, and even youngish [by today’s standards]. Life is long, even though it’s just a blip.) For the boomers are suddenly taking over again …although in a backhanded way, since the actual individuals who are making this happen are probably our children and even grandchildren. But somehow it feels like “our” projects. (Perhaps that is just another boomer trait, to see everything else as an extension of oneself?)

            I am talking about the urge and surge to accomplish the ultimate projects, including not only “mundane” things like ending world poverty and diseases (although I think we’ve given up on ending war), but especially the cosmic things like immortality, reaching another star system (we have already reached Pluto and beyond!), and Contact (with ET). On the one hand there are intimations of mortality, such as when I realized the other day that NASA was already planning space missions that I would not live to see! On the other hand, genius scientists and engineers, superentrepreneurs, and billionaire investors are finding and funding marvels of every kind, allowing their science-fiction imaginations to run wild.

            Actually a lot of it is pure hype and wishful thinking and rich people’s fantasies and really no different from any other kind of salvational religion (except that the latter is traditionally the domain of the poor and the uneducated and of course focused on the supernatural). I have seen many of these people up close, and they remain human oh so human. Nevertheless they do have occasional remarkable successes, and the times they really are a-changin’.

But my main point is only that all the stops are being pulled out either directly by boomers or else in our time. It is an extraordinary effort being made to see it all, do it all – for apr├Ęs nous …? Actually, however, “after us” is inconceivable to the folks I’m talking about. They intend to stick around for all of it, forever. And yet, contradictorily, it is a desperate effort … for we will only be immortal if we achieve immortality now

Monday, May 23, 2016

Let Us Now Praise Dagwood

By Joel Marks

It is almost impossible to believe that the comic strip Blondie has been running continuously since 1930, because it is, to my taste, the best comic strip today. At least 50% of the time, seven days a week, it can be counted on to give a good laugh. Take the most recent daily episode. The first panel shows Blondie and Dagwood in bed with Dagwood looking concerned and Blondie peeved. She says, “The problem is … you never ask me how I’m feeling!” In the next panel Dagwood obligingly and earnestly asks, “How are you feeling?” In the final panel, Blondie replies, “Well if you have to ask, then we really have a problem!”

            This is not only funny. It is beautiful. Consider the perfect symmetry between “The problem is …” at the beginning and the “… have a problem” at the end. But there is also a special bang to the mirror-reply added by the word “really.” And of course topping it off is the hapless helpless husband looking straight at us from the page in a pictorial rendition of bada-bing.

            To be able to generate quality humor like that day after day for 86 years is a marvel to behold. And apparently it has been done by father and son: Chic Young, who died in 1973, and Dean Young. There have been, and are, other quality strips; Garfield gets my vote for Number Two, including nonpareil Sunday artwork and slapstick. But which can match that record? Some quit while they were ahead: Consider Calvin and Hobbes. Peanuts has just run repeats since the death of its creator. And some deteriorate, such as, alas, Beetle Bailey, although only recently.

            But record or not, Blondie today is an ongoing work of art. In my view – and I would be surprised to be contradicted – the comic strip is really about Dagwood, Blondie’s husband. Certainly Dagwood idolizes Blondie, who is a fine character in her own right, just the right combination of ditzy, level-headed, and knowing to continue to elicit old-time laughs that are acceptable to more modern sensibilities. But it is Dagwood whose personality generates most of the fun.

            What is so impressive about Dagwood is that he is both Everyman, or Every Suburban Middleclass Man, and utterly unique. This is the guy who kisses his wife goodbye and then goes to work in the office every morning. In the office he is always working on some contract or other, attending meetings, hanging out at the water cooler. He goes to lunch at the luncheonette or the diner. He comes home looking forward to a good dinner prepared by his wife and afterward parks himself in front of the TV. On weekends he just wants to rest, and he loves a long bath. Other times he would like to play golf or go bowling or watch a game on TV with his neighborhood buddy, Herb, but must often instead mow the lawn or fix something in the house.

            But this is also the man who wants nothing other than to sleep the day away in bed or on the couch or at his desk in the office. He is forever late getting up in the morning, keeps his carpool waiting, rushes out the front door like the whirlwind, and infuriates his boss, Mr. Dithers, with his inveterate tardiness, dozing off, goofing off, and, with all that, expectations of a raise. (One wonders why he is kept on at all, but Dithers’ affection for Blondie’s cooking may be the simple answer.) Perhaps most famously of all, this is the man who at any time of day or night is ready to eat, and eat prodigiously. He adores his wife’s cooking, but is himself adept at creating the ultimate culinary bomb, the Dagwood Sandwich. (My one personal dissatisfaction with the strip is Dagwood’s incorrigible carnivorism.) And of course this is the guy who has a single large button on his shirt, two giant cowlicks on his head, and the name “Dagwood Bumstead”!

            A close second to Dagwood’s own enduring personality is the hilarity generated by his interactions with an amazing array of characters (in both senses). Blondie is of course of first importance, but there is also a large contingent of wise guys. Neighbor Herb is forever “borrowing” Dagwood’s tools and otherwise stiffing him. The postman Mr. Beasley (and also any number of door-to-door salesmen) needles Dagwood at every opportunity. The plumber is more than happy to benefit from Dagwood’s dependence, as well as (understandably) be compensated for putting up with Dagwood’s kitchen quarterbacking. Department store clerks know their mark when they see him. Even his barber continually makes wise cracks at his expense.

            Then there are less snotty but still difficult denizens of Dagwood’s world, like Lou of Lou’s Diner, who caters to Dagwood’s catholic appetite but won’t hesitate to pull a fast one, and Elmo, the little boy neighbor who is up on all the latest but will never let Dagwood get some afternoon’s shuteye. Finally, there are entirely friendly but therefore bland characters who add the occasional mild laugh situation, chiefly Dagwood and Blondie’s own teen spinoffs, son Alexander and daughter Cookie, and of course dog Daisy, whose expressions serve as pictorial punctuation marks to whatever is going on.

Of course this bare description of the components of Blondie could only convey the genius of the strip to someone who was already acquainted with it. So if that is you, I hope you have enjoyed this opportunity for reverie. And if it is not you, then by all means give the strip a try! It might take time for you to be drawn into its world, naturally, but if you are, then, like me, you will reach a point where each of the endless recurrences of its stock situations fills you with joy … and perhaps amazement.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Utility of Utilitarianism

by Joel Marks

I am opposed to the institutionalized use by human beings of nonhuman animals for any purpose whatever, whether it be food production, clothing, entertainment and (so-called) sport, even companionship (that is, purpose-bred pets, as opposed to pound animals). But the use of nonhuman animals in biomedical experimentation and testing, although it involves a tiny percentage of the tens of billions of animals exploited and killed by humans, seems to present the crucial case for any universal proscription. For here it is routinely a matter of serious consequence for human beings, including the potential relief from pain, disability, and death, and not simply the indulgence of accustomed tastes and pleasures and conveniences, that is being pitted against the pain, disability, and death of other species.

            All the more, then, does the issue become exquisite when the nonhuman animal in question is an insect … and even more so when the insect is one whom most of us find repulsive. Thus was I intrigued by my own response when I happened to learn about just this sort of experimentation going on in a nearby university. (I am not going to name names because I would need to go to extraordinary lengths to confirm all of the relevant particulars and I can make my general points regardless of their applicability to this case. Therefore even though I will draw on an actual media account, I am using the episode only as a hypothetical illustration, which as such is representative of trends I know to exist from long experience as a university professor and animal ethicist.)

            The experiment in question involved cockroaches, which can now be turned into insect cyborgs for use “in disasters, rescues and reconnaissance” and even as power sources. The Defense Department for one has shown great interest in this sort of application. The setting was a class in which an enterprising teacher took the initiative to introduce her students to this biotechnology, which is at the cutting edge of career preparation.

            Now, even as I write this, I am experiencing discomfort from the thought of cockroaches, never mind this use of them. The students apparently got over this, just as medical students get over all sorts of normally disgust-inducing things because they believe it is for an overwhelmingly good purpose … and also, no doubt, from simple habitation over time and repetition. After all, when you get right down to it, anything can be a source of disgust, and certain commonly recognized objects of disgust are also a part of everyday life, which we mostly don’t even give a second thought. It is only when something occurs out of its normal context in our experience that the disgust response may be activated. Just one of countless typical examples: I know that the very same situations that arouse me sexually would instead repulse me if clinically depicted in porn or imagined in a different sexual orientation (for example, homosexual versus heterosexual). Disgust is a fascinating phenomenon in part because of its utter relativity.

            It is also easy enough to imagine an entomologist becoming utterly enamored of the intricacies of the roach anatomy and behavior. Fascination and enchantment are just as much subject to relativity as disgust is. But it is part of my present purpose to emphasize that I still do find cockroachs disgusting and yet nevertheless was disturbed by the way they were being used in this classroom. (There is research to suggest that people who are animal advocates such as myself tend to be more sensitive to disgust. This is a deflationary fact if true, for it means that the supposed ethical grounds for opposing the mistreatment of animals has its roots in sheer physical disgust at, say, eating animal bodies. I myself feel no disgust whatever at eating animal bodies and wish I could resume to do so, but I have become a strict vegan nonetheless. On the other hand I think it is true that I am exceedingly disgust-averse to those things that do disgust me, and I am disgusted by many things that most people seem not to be disgusted by. Where that leaves the matter I cannot say.)

            So what is it about the treatment of the animals that turned me off? Well, for one thing my empathy receptors were going gangbusters when I read about the procedure being taught, to wit:

The first step to creating the cyborgs was to do surgery on the roaches. The class broke into groups, each of which tag-teamed a roach. The backpacks were inserted with a small hole poked just behind their heads. Then their antennae were clipped, and the electrode wires were fed into them.

I have to believe that no anesthetics were being employed, although even if they were, the whole thing is appalling. But it was the following passage that finally elicited my outrage:

The teacher guided the class through an extensive discussion on the ethics of working with animals prior to the project and proceeded only after everyone agreed it was worthwhile. “The roaches probably weren’t thrilled,” the teacher said. “But it’s important to understand how this works.”

I am going to read a lot into that passage based on (and I suppose you could also say “biased by”) my extensive experiences of studying and teaching theoretical ethics and of dialoguing about professional ethics with colleagues in various practical fields, such as business, engineering, and medicine. So let me paraphrase it in a more expansive way, thus:

The teacher, who was not herself a trained ethicist but rather a professional expert in a vocational field, devoted one, or part of one, class period to explaining a rudimentary ethical schema to her students, and in fact the very same schema that she had learned from her teacher in a similar way, and so on. The schema was presented as fact: This is what ethics is, this is what is right and this is what is wrong, in theoretical terms, which we can now apply to the case at hand. Furthermore, the particular ethics conveyed was utilitarianism, according to which the right thing to do is whatever will have the best consequences overall of all available options. Then the teacher explained that, of course, insects are minimally conscious if conscious at all, and short-lived; and therefore both their pain and their very continued existence are quite outweighed by the potential benefit to human beings from learning what we can from experimenting on them or using them in other ways to serve important human ends. Who could argue with that? So the students naturally assented to proceeding.

            I cannot know if you, my reader, share my background experience or my scruples about this scenario, but to me it is cringe-inducing. Let me count (some of) the ways!

1) Ethics is not a matter of fact, unless we are simply talking about the prevailing beliefs of a particular society or group or individual. Thus, for example, it is a fact that many people in the United States believe that abortion is morally wrong, and many others believe it is not. It is also a fact that all of those people believe that what they believe about abortion is itself a fact, namely, that abortion is, or is not, wrong. However, that second or “meta” belief – in effect, the belief that there are moral facts that transcend what people happen to believe (just as there are presumed to be, say, physical facts about the Earth, even if people believe wrongly that the Earth is flat) is highly questionable. (I myself believe it is simply false.) But even if there are moral facts of this sort, there is certainly no consensus – far from it – about what those facts are. So to present one particular ethical theory as The Way It Is is as suspect as presenting the dogma of one particular religion as The Way It Is. Even that is acceptable in a free society, of course, but not, I would say, in a biology class.

            Please note that I am not suggesting that there be no guiding rules of practice. There must be! How could class proceed otherwise, whether or not there was to be experimentation on roaches? A decision does need to be made one way or the other. I am objecting only to sanctioning the announced procedure with some presumed imprimatur by morality. I myself would suggest that the practice be (1) to explain what the rules decided on by the teacher and or the department are, (2) to explain why those rules have been chosen, and (3) to allow individual students to opt out in controversial cases.

2) The particular ethical theory that is being presented – utilitarianism – is widely considered by ethicists to be bankrupt. (It is also widely accepted.) What I find particularly noxious about its employment by animal researchers (and others) is that it is so obviously tendentious and self-serving. I am not accusing most of the researchers of doing this intentionally or cynically, not to mention evilly. I believe most of them accept this justification sincerely. My complaint is that they have not had sufficient education in ethics to be able to understand that they are promoting a theory that is (1) only one option among many and (2) very easily shown to have highly questionable implications. I do mean to suggest, however, that the biomedical research profession as a whole (among so many others) has bowed to convenience in this regard. In a word, they have discovered the utility of wielding utilitarianism for their purposes. For in any “contest” of nonhuman animal interests against human animal interests, you can be sure that the human interests will win. This is because it is the human beings who are doing the judging, although the human beings may sincerely believe they are simply weighing facts impartially.

            I am really lodging two charges against utilitarianism. (And this is analogous to what I did with morality above.) One is that it is false. Animal researchers themselves already know this implicitly in their very choice of animal research over human research in their efforts to advance biomedicine; for surely we would conquer cancer and so much else and far more quickly if we performed gruesome and fatal experiments on human beings instead of other animals. Yet this is rejected out of hand on moral grounds. Hence utilitarianism must be false: The ends do not always justify the means.

The other objection to utilitarianism is that, even if it were true, its application would always be suspect. Thus in the present case, there is no way whatever to “weigh” the relative importance of a roach’s life or well-being against a human’s life or well-being. Such a weighing presumes that value is objective and provides a single standard. I happen to believe that all value is relative to a valuer and hence is subjective. The well-being and life of both roaches and humans are the only ones they and we have, and hence their value to each is supreme. But even if there were an objective standard, the tendency of any animal capable of thinking in such terms would be to interpret its natural preference for its own well-being and life as evidence of their greater objective worth. But that is simply fallacious. If I show a preference for my child over yours when I am able to save the life of only one of them, it does not follow in any way that my child has greater objective worth than yours.

As I noted at the outset, the present case isolates these issues to an exquisite degree. For I personally share the widespread human disgust at cockroaches to the point that I would call the exterminator rather than permit them to share my living quarters. Yet I still would not cite this fact as a pretext for branding them less important than myself or even loved ones. There is no need to trade in such fantasies in order to carry out my intentions rationally and ethically. And in fact in my own first-hand encounters with equally disgusting inhabitants of my house – centipedes – I go out of my way to catch them and let them loose outside (only to return, I know). I have been mightily impressed by the strength and ingenuity they display in their unrelenting efforts to evade capture, and so cannot help but believe that they share my own drive for survival. Therefore I respect them, and feel regret when I am left with no recourse but to wash one down the drain, presumably to his or her death. And yet, as I say, they disgust me utterly.

In the end, then, I do not oppose the use of roaches in research as something inherently wrong, but instead have a strong aversion to the harming or other use of animals – whether human or nonhuman – when they neither consent to such use nor pose any threat to us. What strikes me as the essential distastefulness of the classroom situation I have been discussing is that it appears to undermine this principle, for it makes it appear that the only ethical question in deciding whether to harm or otherwise use a living creature is whether there might be some greater benefit to us of doing so. A lot more hangs in the balance, therefore, than “just” whether to experiment on some bugs we happen to find disgusting.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Putting 2 and 2 Together

by Joel Marks

Last night I glanced out my window before pulling down the shade and noticed a bright star. It was probably Jupiter. I am fairly knowledgeable about the nighttime sky, since I have been an amateur astronomer all my life. Nothing is more fascinating to me than the physical universe with its vastness and mystery. So as I gazed at the blazing planet I began to picture it as the immense and gorgeous globe it is, when I suddenly had a random thought: There could be artificial satellites orbiting that planet!

            Now this is hardly news for anybody. We have been sending probes to the planets and moon(s) for decades, indeed for over half a century; and I’ve been following them the whole time. But, dagnabbit, not once before had I ever put 2 and 2 together in my perceptual experience and felt their presence when I looked at the sky. Oh, plenty are the times I have gazed at the moon and practically swooned at the thought of human beings walking there, or hiking there with backpacks as I myself have done on this planet. But, for whatever reasons or causes, the particular thought of an unmanned space probe orbiting another celestial body had just never come to me when I was looking at one of them.

            I am musing now at several levels. I am as ever in awe of humanity’s reach into space. Last night was a moment of genuine splendor for me, to have that First Light dawn on me. But that soon led me to musing at a more abstract level about the “thickness” of the human “skull.” How could I have failed to unite my intellectual knowledge (and indeed passion) with my actual experience for half a century? Just dumb, I guess. Well, just human.

            So from now on when I gaze at the planets, I will experience them as accompanied by human artefacts. Of course the sky has already been filled with human artefacts, from kites to airplanes to Earth satellites to, soon, drones. But all of those are visible to the naked eye, whereas these others must be imagined because of their distance. Note also that I specifically say “planets,” by which I refer to the seven classical planets, or “wanderers” through the so-called fixed stars. So this means not only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, but also the sun and the moon. And we have or have had and surely will have probes circling them all. Isn’t that amazing? We are a truly space-faring species; we inhabit not only the Earth but the entire visible solar system (and of course the “invisible” one too, since we have also visited Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and several other “minor planets”; and some of these are sometimes visible to the naked eye as well).

            Again, no news here. Just … realization. And is it not preciously in consciousness that wonder resides?

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Tube

I had been preparing for months for a conference overseas and at long last was boarding the airplane. How much effort had gone into this, but now everything had been arranged and all that remained was to carry through with my well-designed plans. The main event was to be the presentation of a poster at the conference; this is a form of mini-paper that features a literal poster on a wall containing one’s main arguments. As I was approaching my economy seat in the rear section of the plane and getting ready to hoist my carry-ons into the overhead bin, I suddenly realized I was not carrying the tube containing the poster! I was later told by an onlooker that my pale face went absolutely white. I know from my own experience that my stomach dropped to the floor. In a panic I turned around and struggled through the line of people in the narrow aisle to the exit of the plane and explained my plight to the attendants. One of them accompanied me to the gate, where an official grudgingly gave us permission to return as far as the security entrance but no farther. Halfway there I recalled that I had definitely brought the tube through security, so my anxiety was partially relieved. And, sure enough, when we arrived there, my tube lay in a bin of lost-and-found items. The attendant told me that this was a rare case of discovering something that had gone missing in this manner. As relieved as I was, I never got over the shock. I am still wracked by the nightmare of: what if I had realized I didn’t have the poster just a few minutes later, as the plane was taxiing down the runway? It is as if it actually happened.
             This episode instances a general phenomenon. We have all had moments in which catastrophe was narrowly averted – near misses, close shaves, etc. Mine hardly represents the worst sort. For all I know the airplane I was on narrowly missed colliding with a meteor midway to our destination. Indeed every single moment of our lives is potentially like this and possibly even actually like this. The more general phenomenon is called (by philosophers anyway) contingency. Each and every thing that happens (not to mention what does not happen) is the product of a zillion factors, mostly unknown to us. And that goes of course for the catastrophes that do occur … and also all the wonderful things.
             I think that I have developed a particularly keen sensibility to contingency -- perhaps an occupational hazard of being a philosopher? Thus, I can honestly report that my journey overseas went fabulously well in all respects, both at the conference and on a little holiday excursion afterward. I returned home with a sense of great professional and personal satisfaction. And yet I vowed never to go on such a trip again if I could possibly avoid it.* Why? Because I was also acutely aware of a handful of salient near-misses during those 12 days in addition to the tube one. The trip contained other moments of high drama, which confirmed my sense that travel is not for the faint of heart. And even though everything turned out well, so that these events could just as well be celebrated with joy and relief, my final takeaway was almost terror. Their main message for me was that several such things would be likely to occur during any major undertaking in future; and so the chances were high that they would not all be near-misses but an occasional hit. So to embark on another adventure would be to court disaster (whether of a minor or major sort).
             I am not saying for a moment that my thinking here is truly rational or sound. I am simply trying to articulate the underlying logic of my feeling. Although there is certainly something to said for the line of reasoning therein, various counterarguments also readily suggest themselves. For example, as already noted, every single moment of our lives, and of my life in particular, is dependent on countless “accidents”; so even if I never set foot on an airplane again, indeed, even if I never left my house again, I would still be liable to catastrophes in abundance.
             Perhaps the most fundamental refutation of all is that the very same outlook that underlies our liability to contingency offers a perfectly countervailing consideration. For just as every moment of our lives is governed by this that and the other ultimately beyond our ken, every moment of our lives is, by the very same factor, guaranteed (or “determined,” as we philosophers say) to happen. Thus, since at least the Big Bang thirteen billion years ago, it was quite set that I would lose and find my tube; there was no real possibility that I would not have my poster at the conference. So how could such a thing, rightly conceived, possibly be a source of anxiety for me? Even if I also factor in my response to it all, including my philosophical anxiety, won’t my decision to travel again, or not to, as well as any resultant catastrophe, also be something that is carved in stone? 
             Thus the consolation of philosophy to counteract the anxiety of a philosopher. But now I philosophically wonder why we live at all, even why there is a universe at all. If each anxiety is matched by a “consolation” that wipes it out, wouldn’t everything have been quite simpler if none of it had happened in the first place? The same seems to be true of the entire physical universe: There is some kind of universal accounting that returns everything to zero in the end (don’t ask me to explain the technical details, which I couldn’t). Well, here too one can adopt an opposite attitude: Isn’t it grand that we can derive absolutely everything from nothing?
* Compare the thought of “good, but once is enough” in my previous post, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Clearly there is something about my personality, and not just abstract reasoning about objective facts, that motivates my philosophical ideas.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Won’t Get Fooled Again

I have often considered that some big philosophical questions lend themselves to sociological investigation – a simple poll, if such were possible. But two things stand in the way of this kind of poll. One is the sheer immensity and complexity of finding a sample that is truly representative of all of humanity (not to mention, humanity past and future). The other is what makes these truly philosophical questions, which is being sure the relevant concept has been analyzed and operationalized validly (it really does pick out the meaning of the concept) and reliably (all of those being polled really do share the same concept).
Perhaps the main example of this kind of question is this: Is (human) life worth living? I am suggesting that this question could be addressed in poll-like fashion by asking a suitable sample of humans if they find their own life to be worth living. Again, the practical implementation of this poll would be daunting. For instance, would we want to poll only elders who could view their life as a whole? But many people do not reach old age. Furthermore, elders’ views may be skewed by their temporally local circumstances as much as by their presumed panorama; they may be biased by their current ailments, or alternatively by their reduced need to struggle about so many things, supplemented by simply forgetting how difficult so much of their life had been at the time of those struggles.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus famously dubbed my question the one truly serious philosophical problem,” but he equated it to the question of whether to commit suicide. I have a different idea. I think the question of suicide is somewhat of a diversion since there can be all sorts of reasons to stay alive, once one is already alive, that have little to do with one’s overall assessment of life’s value … beginning with simple fear of death or dying, but including also obligations to or caring about others and, for many, insufficient pain or angst to want to bother ending it.
My thought is this, then: Simply ask yourself whether you would like to, or mind being, born again.
Ah, but this is not so simple either. I think I can make it reasonable enough, however, with a few clarifications. Thus, I am not asking the metaphysically fraught question, “Do you wish you had never been born?” Besides being difficult to wrap one’s mind around, the question is too particular to the circumstances of one’s own actual life, whereas I am looking for a broader assessment of human existence as a whole.
So in considering your attitude toward the prospect of rebirth, what I have in mind is this. You are to imagine that you might be reborn as anyone whomsoever, in any era, past or future (though you are also free to limit some of this vast scope as being simply beyond the realm of conceivability; so perhaps it would be better to say, anyone whomsoever in past or present and near-future, or even just present). You might be rich or poor, hale or sickly, generally happy or melancholy or tortured, English or Chinese, even male or female or hermaphroditic, etc.
(I am adapting a thought experiment used by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, but in such a way as to remove some of its problematic features. I admit, however, that my thought experiment still has problematic features of its own. For example, in what sense is it the same person, myself, if I would have no recollection of who I am in “this” life, and could be utterly different in the next one? Nevertheless, I find this no more problematic than deciding whether it is the same person after amnesia, or during dementia, or even between infancy and maturity, etc.)
Considered thus, I know that my own answer to the question, “Would you like to be reborn?” would be an emphatic “No!” My intuition is still no doubt heavily colored by my feelings about my own actual life. But it also seems to me as close to an objective assessment of human life as a whole that one would be able to make. Just considering the statistical odds of ending up in dire straits of one kind or another might be enough to reach this conclusion. But even assuming non-dire straits for the mass of humanity, I see little enough in human existence to entice me to go through it all over again. Just think about it!
Nietzsche posed a similar challenge with his eternal return. Meanwhile, the Buddha and most Buddhists – and unlike the typical New Ager -- agree with my assessment and seek precisely to avoid reincarnation (although there are Buddhist saints or bodhisattvas who put off Nirvana until they have helped everyone else reach that state of non-being). Nevertheless there are also people who say “Yes!” to life no matter what.

P.S. Already I begin to see further complications, but also interesting implications, of this thought experiment. For instance, there may be a contamination of the question by thinking of it as a case of being reborn. For suppose one’s attitude toward the value of living a human life were “It’s good, but once is enough”; then one might refuse the offer to be reborn, and yet this would not be an indicator that one did not think life worth living. On the other hand, there is paradox here, since even though reborn, one would experience life as if for the first time; so if one did truly find life worth living albeit only once, then why not be reborn into a new life that would seem to be one’s one and only life? I wonder also about how one’s answer to the question would stand up to one’s thoughts and feelings about having children. Suppose one decidedly rejected being reborn; would this mean one would reject bringing children into this world? I’m certain the answer is “No.” I doubt very much that our reason for bringing children into the world has much to do with a consideration of the value of life. People bring children into the world for themselves, not for the children! (Although once here, of course, we may devote ourselves to their welfare.) Indeed, I am sure many parents see children as a way to boost the value of their own life; certainly many of us would feel our life much diminished without children. But as for whether we have done them a favor by bringing them into being … well, that can now be seen not only to pose a question, but to raise a moral issue. There is also the question of to what degree in bringing a child into the world we are in a way being reborn ourselves, since childbearing is indeed our genome’s way of persisting; in which case, wanting children but not wanting to be reborn may appear paradoxical. So you can see that however philosophical this thought experiment may be, it would certainly make a good parlor game!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

My previous post, "A Matter of Interpretation," alludes to the parable of the sheep and the goats at the end. A number of years ago I had occasion to write a sort of sermon on that parable after hearing someone else present an actual sermon on it. I think that episode is worth sharing now. -- Joel Marks

When I Heard the Learn’d Theologian

The Sheep and the Goats
 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version), BibleGateway.com: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2025&version=31

When I heard this parable preached at a Lenten service, I was much gratified. What a beautiful testimony of ecumenism! There I was, a Jew by birth, an atheist by temperament, a Buddhist by conviction, listening to a passage from the New Testament to which I could nod in complete agreement. I did not for a moment take the story in any literal sense, but I also could not object if anybody else did. For the message was totally benign; and if I should one day wake up dead and witness the very spectacle with my own spiritual or physically reconstituted eyeballs, I would not be displeased.
            Imagine my surprise, then, when the lay preacher proceeded to parse the passage in a partisan way. He explained that the sheep were those who had accepted Jesus as Christ and the goats those who had not. I had to rub my mental eyeballs: Were we reading the same text? For I take it to be saying exactly the opposite, that even those who had not recognized “the King” in this life could be blessed.
It is true that all in the passage address the Son as “Lord,” but I imagine that would be the spontaneous form of address if you suddenly came upon a majestic figure seated on a heavenly throne. Sort of like being ushered before the person in the black robe seated behind a raised desk in a courtroom; we all know to address her as “Your Honor.”
The more significant point is that none of the people before him claimed to have “seen” him in their daily dealings down below. These are the people from “all the nations”; we may presume that includes Chinese, Indians, Iroquois, Israelites, you name it. There were no Christians when Jesus spoke, but throw them in too if you like since he was presumably talking about the End of Time. It does not change the import of the story one iota, for the question is whether the people, nominally Christian or not, were truly Christian in their treatment of other people.
What is it to be truly Christian? Analogous to my shock and disappointment upon hearing the lay speaker’s interpretation of this story is my continual amazement at how many Christians declare that the one and only litmus test is whether you believe that Jesus rose from the dead. That can certainly be given all sorts of symbolic meaning to inspire one’s life; but usually it is asserted literally. Christ is the One Way. If you don’t “get” that or “buy into” it hook line and sinker – virgin birth, walking on water, and all – then you aren’t a Christian. And if you do, you are.
Baloney. This very parable is the antidote to that way of thinking. What counts is the quality of your heart. Do you spontaneously and without thought of any reward, heavenly or otherwise, help the needy? If so, you are a Christian. If not, not. Indeed, what better “proof” could there be of the purity of one’s motive than precisely not to realize what eternal consequence may be awaiting you for the simple acts of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked?
The theological heart of this message can be found elsewhere in Matthew (22):

36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37 Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

… and even more to the point in Galatians (5):

14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

This says nothing about obeisance to Christ as such. Indeed, it invites the atheist as well; for the crucial love in question is purely secular. The religious see such love as tantamount to love of God, but it need not be explicitly so. Is that not the most natural, plain reading of all of the passages of Scripture quoted above? Is that not the whole point of Jesus’s catholic teaching? Is it not the original defining feature of Christianity, namely, that it does not place emphasis on tribal loyalties and sectarian divides?
I have only one improvement to suggest on the parable, namely, that it explicitly include the most vulnerable and innocent population of all: other animals. Christianity has been notoriously lame about this (and despite its employment of animals in parables, stories, and metaphors – goats and sheep indeed!). This quotation from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Harper & Row, 1984) pretty much sums it up, I think:

"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists in its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." (Part 7 ("Karenin's Smile”), Chapter 2, p. 289)

Let us all return to the Garden together. Amen.

P.S. I also see the parable of the sheep and the goats as implicit testimony to the idolatry of raising Jesus the human to Christ the god, indeed, God incarnate. Thus, the parable undercuts the mainstream interpretation of Christianity itself, and even brings the true Christianity into alignment with Buddhism (not to mention, Judaism and atheism). For this parable provides an exquisite way to understand one of Buddhism’s most characteristically paradoxical-seeming sayings: “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Matter of Interpretation

by Joel Marks
December 31, 2015
In the infamous Red State /Blue State divide in the United States, the Red States are stereotyped as the patriotic and Christian types. But I wonder. In this increasingly polarized and surprising Twenty-first Century, I have become more and more profoundly disillusioned, and just plain puzzled, by self-proclaimed Christian Americans. Of course one cannot generalize to all Christian Americans, nor are the ones I have in mind found only in the geographic middle of the country. But those of whom I am speaking tend to hog the airways … much as “Islamic fundamentalists” make for better “news” than the presumably very different Islamic mainstream. And increasingly they are steering the country, as in our dysfunctional Congress and now in the Presidential race (at the moment, the Republican contest for the nomination). So the nonsense matters.
            9/11 was the pivotal event that brought all of this muck to the surface. What has disturbed me the most deeply (speaking now of the domestic scene and not even touching on the disastrous invasion of Iraq, although therein lie the true roots of the current events at home) are the overt acts of anti-Muslim sentiment. I am even unaware of vandalism of mosques for the most part, and insults and harassment suffered by individuals. But what catches the attention of a John Q. Public such as myself are naturally events that play out in the national media. Most prominently the attempt to block the construction of an Islamic Cultural Center in downtown Manhattan, and, more recently, the attempt to block immigration by Syrian refugees. I feel humiliated to my American bones by the expressions of intolerance, not to mention abject fear (in this "home of the brave”), now on display by, for example, the majority of the governors of the country!
            But, as I noted at the outset, as much as and more than humiliated, I am just dumbfounded. How can people who are broadcasting their very Americanism be so blind to the blatant unAmericanism of what they are doing? What could be more essential to our national identity than our turning a blind eye to a person’s “race, creed, color, or national origin [etc.]”? Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of the country – indeed, even freedom from religion for atheists like myself. The very same principle that ennobles, for example, the firefighting profession – of rushing into a burning building to rescue any person (and, increasingly, any living being, including pets) – is what fills my chest with pride when I think of the United States. What country did these anti-Muslim bigots grow up in, that they were taught something different, and most bizarrely, to call it “American”?
            But my astonishment does not end there. For the original diagnosis of the problem might seem to be that these supposed Americans are Christians who understand America as a nation founded by Christians and typified by Christian values. This is why they are wary of the Muslims. But, American ideals aside, what kind of Christianity is this? To me (a Jew, a Buddhist, and an atheist) the essence of the teachings of that great rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, are most succinctly conveyed by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, thus:

 31"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
 34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
 37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
 40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
 44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
 45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
 46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Matthew 25 (New International Version), BibleGateway.com: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew%2025&version=31

If this be Christianity, then I am happy to proclaim the United States a Christian nation. Now if only the self-proclaimed Christian Americans would see it the same way!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Blessed Pain

by Joel Marks
December 29, 2015
It’s nothing short of a miracle. Pressure points, aka trigger points – have you heard of them? I could not tell you what the underlying physiology is. But I learned about them in practice from a good friend of mine, who is a masseur and also the creator of a line of simple tools for self-massage. When a number of years ago I began noticing that sign of exceeding the normal lifespan of Homo erectus, namely, lower back pain, Allan gave me a squash ball to place between my back and the wall and then roll across. The aim was to discover a pressure point which was somehow responsible for the “referred pain” in my back.
  After some experimenting I found a spot on one side of my spine, seeming to be in a cord that ran up and down the side of my back parallel to the spine (there being another cord on the other side as well). How did I know it was “the” spot? Because it hurt sharply when the ball rolled over it.
  Lo and behold, after doing this for no more than three seconds – just two or three passes of the ball over the pressure point – I found that my back pain had vanished. And stayed vanished for the rest of the day. A pain that had been with me for hours every day for months. Gone. Not gone forever. But now whenever the pain comes back, which is not too often, I just grab the ball, roll on it, and in two or three seconds, the back pain is gone for that day and beyond.
  (Note: It is very important, I have discovered empirically, not to overdo this technique. First of all, do not expect the pain at the location of the pressure point to go away from application of the ball. The referred pain will disappear even though the pressure point pain remains. Eventually the pressure point pain will go away of its own accord; and in any case it’s not a problem, because you only feel it when you are applying pressure, as with the ball. If you try to get the pressure point pain to go away by continuing to rub it with the ball, you are asking for severe trouble. Later in the day the area will hurt like the blazes, and could even be crippling.)
  This has changed my life, for the better, obviously. It has also led to my becoming experimental with my body. Now whenever I have a new pain (which happens with alarming frequency as age advances), my first resort is to look for a pressure point. This strategy has led to remarkable successes.
  A couple of months ago a new back pain came out of the blue that was so debilitating I found myself walking bent forward. Using the ball technique I was not able to find a pressure point. However, under further direction by Allan, I was able to locate one, first by swinging my arm behind me and exploring with my knuckles, and then quite simply with a finger. Another miracle ensued. Simply by pressing and kneading the point with my finger for two or three seconds, the back pain vanished and I was an upright man again. It was as if I were a robot with a console on the back and had only to push a button on it to change my posture (and feelings if robots have any).
  The most recent episode has been a dreary ache when I bend my elbow. This seemed to have settled in for the duration. It was also spreading ominously into my hand. I could not imagine where a pressure point might be. But again the spirit of experiment (and the desire for pain relief) chipped in. I Googled for some stretches to try. One of them involved bending one hand back or forward with the other hand. This seemed to help. So I kept at it.
  Then one day while out for a walk I decided to fiddle with my hands since there was nothing else to do (like typing as I am now and so much of the day!) and, lo and behold, I discovered an exquisitely painful spot near the base of my fourth finger. I rubbed it with a finger of my other hand for two or three seconds. Bingo! The elbow pain vanished … and for the rest of the day!
  So this has all got me thinking that there must be a whole world of therapy out there that doctors (and medical researchers) in the Western tradition seem mostly to ignore or be ignorant of and could even find threatening. I would expect the vast majority of them would prescribe pain meds to deal with these pains, perhaps also physical therapy, but never think to suggest hunting for pressure points.
  Although I must also acknowledge that my doctor did just that sort of thing when I came to him with dizzy spells a year ago. He gave me a quick checkup to determine that there was nothing “wrong” with me. Then he suggested that I Google “Epley Maneuver.” There I found some written instructions, which seemed a tad complicated; so I typed the name into YouTube and watched a few videos that showed how to do it. These varied widely in quality and also in how big a deal the therapy had to be, one even suggesting wearing a neck brace. But in short order I discovered one that made it simple and easy by Peter Johns. I tried it. It took just five minutes. After that I never had another dizzy spell. Miraculous!
  Could all of our ills be amenable to analogous treatments? Could we close the hospitals and put the doctors and researchers out of business? I doubt that. But I also see no limit to how much we might attempt to replace them. Probably what is called for here, as everywhere, is a balance.
  Also not to be neglected are changes of lifestyle, which can also serve a preventive and not only curative purpose.* Thus, not only have I found pressure points to help me with my back and elbow and hand pains and stiffness, but I’ve also been experimenting with my keyboard habits, beginning with monitoring and cutting down the hours, setting up my work station so that I have the option of standing or kneeling and not always sitting at the computer, purchasing an ergonomic chair, minimizing repetitive actions with the mouse by learning keyboard shortcuts, etc.
  But it all began with pain … the pain that stimulated this journey … and, most of all, the blessed pain of the pressure points!

* Indeed, Dr. David L. Katz maintains that we could eliminate 80 percent of our major medical ills by simple lifestyle changes, namely, eat right, exercise, and don’t smoke.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

First Drone

I saw my first drone today (December 19, 2015). While out for an afternoon walk I noticed a strange sound, like a mosquito. Then I looked up and there was a tiny object high in the sky, possibly as high as the Sikorski helicopters that fly around here. But this thing was just hovering stock still in the air ... like a helicopter, but clearly not a helicopter. I could not make out much detail except for a shape, which was 4-sided and probably with whizzing propellers on all sides.
    After a while it suddenly zipped to another location ... similar to how a hawk might rise on the air currents (tho this was, as I say, stock still) and then suddenly shoot off in some direction ... and then again came to a complete halt. Then it kept repeating this, relocating itself over land and then later over the Sound.
    It instills all sorts of feelings. Am I being watched? Could it fall on somebody's head or through the roof? Could it crash into the cockpit of a plane or the rotors of a real helicopter? How soon until the sky is filled with drones like birds, and, aside from the changed scene and new risks, a new source of noise pollution as the buzz of a hundred mosquitoes constantly fills the air?
    And what is this all for? So people can receive packages even faster than we already do? (After Amazon's 30-minute deliveries, the only world left to conquer will be a 3D printer in every home so that nothing really needs to be delivered anymore at all.) So Americans can find yet another expensive hobby to throw away their money on instead of donating to worthy causes?
    Oh well, I don’t really mean to be a Luddite. Both because nothing will stop this, and because I will come to appreciate the benefits as much as anyone. It does seem appropriate to mark the occasion, however. If even little ol’ moi has spotted his first drone, then drones have arrived. I hereby declare a (and yet another!) new era begun.

P.S. A week later I was out for another walk and came upon a little boy playing with a remote control car on the sidewalk, no doubt his brand new toy. He directed it right into my foot. "That's pretty neat," I remarked, trying to smooth over his odd driving maneuver. "Yeah," he said as he approached, "but I can't get it to start up again from a distance." He appeared pretty happy nevertheless, so I thought he would appreciate my news. "You know what? I saw a drone the other day." He looked up at me with a big smile. "I got one for Christmas!"

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

In the Shower, On the Edge

by Joel Marks
December 17, 2015
It came to me in a flash how extraordinarily limited is our hold on consciousness and hence that which most distinguishes us from inert matter. In the shower I used to invariably find myself in a quandary about whether I had already soaped up my body. This would happen when I had rinsed off and was considering whether to turn off the spigot; I would suddenly wonder, “Did I just wipe off the lather, or did I not put it on my body in the first place?”
Sounds like senility, doesn’t it? But I am not senile. I have various other self-checks on my memory to assure me that my memory remains as healthy as anybody’s my age (of 66, though this has been going on for years).
So one day I thought of a tactic. I would make a sign on the moisture misted glass shower door when I was about to lather up. I rather dramatically chose the sign of the Z, after my childhood memories of Zorro. (You see? My memory is intact!) Then when I am wondering whether to turn off the shower, I need only look to see if there is a Z on the door. (This tactic may have been inspired by a wonderful episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, which begins with the crew playing cards and then their whole ship exploding as it unexpectedly encounters a spacetime warp. This happens over and over until finally Lt. Cmdr. Data, I think, figures it out the instant before the explosion and leaves a clue for himself to discover on the next recycling so that he can prevent the explosion.) I have used this method with moderate success for a long time now. The problem is, sometimes I even forget to make the sign of the Z, so, knowing this, I am still left in the same quandary whenever I don’t see it.
Practical problems aside, though, this has put me to ponder our fragile hold on what life is all about. For I realize now that our much vaunted consciousness is but an exceedingly thin patina over the bulk of dark matter (if I may call it that – matter lacking the light of consciousness). In this it is much like the layer of life-giving atmosphere that blankets our planet – hardly a sliver of thickness relative to the globe. And as we move forward in time, it rolls up behind us like a red carpet after the visiting dignitary has passed by. I now absolutely marvel at the tenuousness of our conscious reality as I pay attention to my own awareness. There I am, lathering up my body in the shower, and I know that what I am experiencing will vanish irretrievably in just a few seconds!
Paying attention to it in this way does enable me to recall snippets … and this is my new and preferred method of recalling whether I have soaped up; because not only is it more reliable than the Z, but it also exercises, and therefore presumably strengthens, the very faculty whose preservation is so precious.
Nevertheless, the main message I take away from all this is that our conscious world is largely illusory in its seeming to be whole and comprehensive, for in fact it is quite fragmentary and fleeting. (I drew the same lesson from Dennett’s example in Consciousness Explained of an experimental joke played on him by a computer science colleague. Dennett was told he would be given a demonstration of how the mind or brain constructs whole images out of bits of images, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. He was asked to sit in front of a computer monitor, on which he observed a screensaver appear while the colleague was in another room setting up the display. A few minutes later the colleague came back and asked him how it had gone. How what had gone? It turned out that there was no screensaver on the monitor! A camera mounted on top of the monitor had been tracking Dennett’s gaze, and in response to the input from that camera, pieces of image had been projected on the screen only at those points where Dennett’s eyes happened to be looking. Thus, the “screensaver” was not only not on the screen, but also not in Dennett’s visual field. Instead Dennett only thought he was looking at a screensaver and/or thought he was experiencing a visual field filled with the image of a screensaver. The screensaver, both real and apparent, was an illusion.)

The Joke's on ...?

Dear Editor:
I've figured it out. Donald Trump's campaign is a joke! I mean, we've always known it was a joke, but now I think it may have been intended as a joke all along.
We've seen this before. There was Borat, that is, Sacha Baron Cohen, who traveled America to interact with the natives in all their (our) wackiness. He fed on gullibility, exactly as Trump is doing, getting people to reveal not only their silliness but their darker sides.
Then there was Guy Grand, the protagonist of Terry Southern's wickedly funny novel, The Magic Christian. Grand is wealthy beyond belief and spends his time perpetrating outrageous spoofs on the unsuspecting public. Sound familiar?
Donald Trump has skyrocketed to the lead in the Republican race for the nomination for President of the United States by uttering empty policy pronouncements and vacuous assurances, making hallucinatory factual assertions, putting forward outrageous proposals, hurling insults, making faces, and all around acting like a boor and a demagogue. Even his opponents, such as myself, have been suckered into becoming scornful and indignant.
But now I realize this could only be the most colossal political practical joke ever played on our shores. Donald Trump must be in cahoots with the Onion or the Harvard Lampoon or Mad Magazine on the spoof scoop of the century!
Now that I’ve figured this out, I'm almost tempted to hope he wins the nomination and the Presidency. His inaugural address could begin, "My fellow Americans, I was just kidding!" And then he might roll out a totally enlightened, liberal, compassionate plan of action for the nation, having won his office by the only practicable means, namely, appealing to the lowest common denominator. Does the end justify the means? In this dream of mine, I guess it would.
Unless, that is, President Trump decides to continue playing his joke on us for his whole term in office. After all, wouldn't it be an even grander feat to fool us into reelecting him on the basis of incoherent and/or awful policies actually enacted? Well, no, not really; that was already done by President George W. Bush. So the originality would have worn out by the time President Trump was elected the first time.
So here's to Trump's Presidency! Either that, or a Tony.
Insincerely yours,
Joel Marks
December 2015


Dear Editor:
Perhaps the most obscene aspect of the San Bernardino massacre was seeing the pictures of the assault rifles that were used by the perpetrators. For these, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, had been obtained perfectly legally.
            It hardly matters to me whether the purchaser was an intended terrorist or a plain-old law-abiding citizen. Why are such weapons legally available to almost anyone in the United States? What do they have to do with hunting? What do they have to do with sport? What do they have to do with self-defense?
            Do we really expect to see men and women carrying such weapons to work in case some disturbed or fanatical person invades the premises? And would they be sufficiently trained so that their efforts at defense wouldn’t wreak more collateral damage than the intended damage of the malefactor?
            Meanwhile, I would think a far more effective long-term strategy for dealing with terrorists and other malcontents is opening our arms in friendship rather than shutting down our borders to immigrants or arming ourselves to the teeth against the minuscule percentage who might still wish us ill.
We do after all have a huge professional contingent of FBI and police and others whose job it is to deal with the outliers. And to all appearances they have performed superbly in keeping us safe since 9/11.
If perfect safety were sought, none of us would ever get into an automobile. And maybe none of us would if each automobile fatality were given the kind of nonstop publicity every mass shooting receives. I think the only way I have preserved my own sanity is by simply not having a television and otherwise limiting my media exposure to circumscribed episodes of responsibly reported news.
We would also save vastly more lives if we funneled some of the resources currently directed against terrorism into enforcing highway safety. Consider also some statistics. “A study of 626 shootings in or around a residence in three U.S. cities revealed that, for every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings … (Kellermann et al, 1998). … Individuals in possession of a gun at the time of an assault are 4.46 times more likely to be shot in the assault than persons not in possession (Branas et al, 2009).” The U.S. has by far the largest rate of accidental childhood deaths by firearm of developed countries. (http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html)
I have therefore reached a novel conclusion about what is really motivating the American public to become universally armed. It is not safety we seek. This is the home of the brave, isn’t it? It can’t be they we are so scared that we need a gun to go to the mall. Anyway, that pretext was exploded when a modest proposal to keep people on the no-fly list from obtaining weapons went dead on arrival in Congress.
So what we really want is not security for our family, but a shoot-out with the bad guys! This is the American way. We, or a large proportion of us, have chosen to forgo peaceful policies and compassionate values that would also serve the instrumental purpose of preventing most acts of violence by evil-doers, in favor of a modus operandi that preserves the fundamental right to have gun fights.
We have made the world safe for mass violence.
Respectfully submitted,
Joel Marks
December 2015