Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sympathy for the Details of Wall Street's Bailout

These are difficult times and many of our leaders have a difficult job ahead of them.

While Congress is busy summoning the proper demons required to purchase the souls of the 13 Republican holdouts in the House, please don't mock United States of Homeland Security Chairman Henry Paulson. Political theatre, like black magic, is difficult work.

In these difficult times, it is your duty as a consumer to represent your leaders to the best of your ability.

As you await the consummation of the appropriate Satanic Congressional rituals, please help save the economy by flying to Las Vegas and gambling away your life savings so that your remaining wealth can trickle up to Wall Street.

Should you have neither life savings nor the time to fly to Las Vegas, expect that any contributions you would have made to Democracy will be extorted from your children by the full force of the US legal machinery.

Thank you for your continued patience during this difficult time of engineered wealth redistribution.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Debating Popular Intelligent Design

A recent article on Wired sparked a debate in the online comments section about the relative merits of evolution and popular intelligent design; it is with some dismay that I've seen this and similar debates enacted in a variety of forums.

I think part of the problem with the evolution vs. intelligent design debate is a conflation of ontologies that is ultimately the failure of the American education system. Even calling intelligent design a theory is problemmatic: this is the element of satire behind the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The propositions of popular intelligent design are, in the vocabulary of the sciences, best described as hypotheses (although in ordinary speech, "theory" and "hypothesis" are often used interchangeably). Just as we use different vocabularies to describe sports, medicine, and law, science and religion also use different vocabularies. There is certainly some overlap: just as law has things to say about the practice of medicine, religion has things to say about the practice of science. Where things get problematic is when different vocabularies make use of what seem like similar phrases, but which are, nevertheless, understood quite differently in different disciplines (a "low score" is good in golf, but bad in basketball). These vocabularies need not be inherently contradictory, but frequently, inferences made about one vocabulary using the terms of another lead to statements that are by and large nonsensical.

There is an important difference in the sciences between descriptive accounts and explanatory models, which is often neglected in this debate. Questions about why God made evolution and why evolution made humans address very different problems. In the popular debate, those on the side of scientism don't often see that their views are biased by cultural perceptions of "the onward march of progress." In the scientific understanding, humans are not objectively the "most advanced" or "most evolved" species on the planet; in quantitative terms, ants have been far more successful than humans in propagating their genes, and have been continuing to evolve over a longer stretch of time than humans. The bias of progress also appears in discussions of technology: today's most "advanced" digital cameras are just starting to catch up to the amount of detail found in a typical photograph from 100 years ago. Needless to say, ants don't engage in such nuanced social behaviors as art; but by the same token, art is different from science: in general, we don't talk about the Mona Lisa in terms of the chemical composition of the pigments, but rather, we usually discuss it in terms of how the colors make us feel and what the forms make us think about as individuals.

Many reasonable people, from the time of our earliest cultural memories, have held that there is something mystical to be found in art. Many reasonable people have held that there is something mystical to be found in geometry. Given that the mathematics of geometry have figured prominently in art and religion for centuries, it seems reasonable to suppose that religion and science aren't the mutually-exclusive disciplines we often consider them to be today.

Much of science works with the language of mathematics; mathematics provides a "lingua franca" whereby different scientific disciplines can compare their propositions and results. To many people, this language is quite foreign or esoteric; therefore, in order for science to be relevant to daily life, many of science's mathematical assertions must be expressed in ordinary terms. When the consequences of mathematical statements are translated into plain language vocabularies, some consequences have to do with how we describe the world, and others have to do with how we explain the inherently meaningful things we experience on a daily basis; unfortunately, there's no rigorous curriculuum to sort out when scientific propositions are meant to be understood as descriptive and when they are meant to be understood as explanatory.

I think that part of the frustration many creationists may feel in expressing their experience of the world to scientific audiences is that even the dichotomy of description and explanation is a function of a scientific vocabulary, and those motivated by an ideological scientism are enculturated to dismiss other vocabularies categorically, without looking for patterns in the assertions typically formulated in those other vocabularies.

From an anthropological/linguistic perspective, we have these different vocabularies because they usefully identify distinct phenomena. Why do we think things are meaningful? Religion provides one set of answers which in many cases -- such as Buddhist psychology -- are rational and in many respects empirical.

It is often useful to discuss things in terms of dichotomies such as good and bad, or true and false; at the same time, we often experience things in shades of grey. When we do things, it is usually because of psychological states that fall into one of two categories: reasoning and emoting. But we can have three possible categories for describing the motives behind an observed action: rational, irrational, or arational (just as we have theists, atheists, and agnostics).

Just because we don't see the reason behind an action doesn't mean it's contrary to reason; one can arrive at the right answer to a math problem even if one's arithmetic is wrong. But we also believe people act from the heart: through ideology, through conviction, through intuition, or through a love of life. In this realm, reason doesn't always apply to motivation (although the results of such actions can often be described as grounded in morals, ethics, and what is generally considered acceptable social behavior).

When we negate the linguistic validity of an ontology, perhaps we too often ignore that diverse vocabularies come into use for a reason, and that embodiments of that reason often result in some emotional satisfaction, which is a form of validity.

Perhaps creationists should stop trying to describe God in scientific terms, and accept that science is a demonstrably insightful description of God's acts of creation. There are so many problems with trying to describe God in scientific terms. Algorithmic information theory provides a fairly precise definition of "complexity" -- the subject of the Wired article under discussion -- that is intuitively satisfying, intellectually rigorous, and useful in the applied sciences. This and closely related understandings of complexity will become more important for anybody who uses modern computers or anything made with modern computers, and who also wants to see any sense of the world. This is so for numerous reasons: as the science of thermodynamics and the science of information systems move closer together linguistically, mathematically, and theoretically, we will see ever more profoundly in our daily lives the applied effects of emergent phenomena such as self-organizing systems, dissipative systems, stochastics, and heuristics, all of which will leave traces of their activities in our experiences and our discourse; and these traces will often be felt in constructed social phenomena such as art, politics, media, and the like, which rely in many ways on scientific research (the use of digital media in the arts, the demographic or economic consequences of legislation, or the psychology of marketing and advertising in the mass media).

To be blunt: would a creationist argue that computers don't at all exist today? Many would consider doing so irrational, except perhaps in the limited context of a philosophy grounded in something like Spinoza (his is the only Jewish excommunication of which I am aware) or Leibniz or Berkeley. At the same time, a creationist and a scientist might agree that computers don't do what we think they do; such claims may furthermore be grounded in theories of mass communication, ethics, morality, or intuition.

There is scientific evidence (from cybernetics, for example: if you had to consciously spell out and deliberately move each individual muscle in your mouth to produce utterances, you'd hardly get a word out) as well as religious evidence (Taoism is a successful religion with a rich history that has very much influenced the idiom of Zen Buddhism) that intuition is often well-grounded, and to deny its validity would present a serious problem to any rational discourse that asserts that past events have occurred or that the perception of free will exists (divine foreknowledge -- omniscience -- is perfectly compatible with free will: just because you know something knocked off a table will hit the floor doesn't mean that knowledge is what brings the event about).

There is a wonderful blog called Acts of Being which discusses contemporary science from the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas's religious philosophy, in ways that are quite sensitive and insightful. Those who have "taken sides" in the debate and are interested in getting at the essence of what "the other side" has to say might benefit from thinking about the discussion there.

My own opinion is that ultimately this isn't really a problem of science or religion, but a problem with the vocabularies that we as a culture have available for distinguishing and reconciling what different types of claims are meant to say about the world. Needless to say, things only get more confusing when politicians get into the "business" of redefining ordinary terms in radical ways for motivations that often seem less than savory ("the lesser of two evils is still evil"), and often more like marketing, spin, or a corporatist form of damage control ("we don't want this lunatic to hurt the Party's image, but we like how this other lunatic unites the Party base").

In a more tangental connection, I'm reminded of Paul Valery's assertion that philosophy should be properly considered a branch of literature. I think there's a certain poetic truth to this idea, which is relevant to the discussion: in the beginning was the Word. I imagine part of Valery's reasoning for making this assertion has to do with his discussion elsewhere to the effect that science and philosophy pursue qualitatively different sorts of Truth; this is why Copernicus is today studied as history while Plato is still studied as philosophy.

Where the debate touches on public education in America, the arguments of opposing camps are often motivated by what is perceived as the threat of false indoctrination; yet we live in a society founded upon the exercise of civil liberties and free will. Art and philosophy offer valuable ways to carry out this debate in constructive ways that don't reduce to one side spewing nonsense at the other; unfortunately, art and philosophy are often treated by our culture as overly academic or as elitist pastimes, and often given short shrift in schools. Art can be devotional or experimental, but needn't be either by necessity.

My gut feeling on the matter is that the debate has more to do with expressing a cultural dissatisfaction at people being treated like specialized cogs in the social machine, but that those who have organized into opposing camps are blinded by their own language, and thus unable to see that they share the emotional thrust of their dissatisfaction with those that they oppose.

OK kids, here's your homework: look up any unfamiliar terms in two sources, re-read this text, and write a four-paragraph critique. In the first paragraph, identify which assertions you will address in your critique. In the second paragraph, summarize those assertions and address why you chose them for your critique. In the third paragraph, offer your critique; provide counter-examples. In the fourth paragraph, examine the consequences of your critique in relation to one of your personal interests or acquired skills: what is the Tao of your hobby or passion? Ask at least one other person if he or she sees any problems with your analysis, however minor. Try to avoid preconceptions about what the process will teach you.

OK teachers: don't forget to write your representatives. Just a reminder: you have State and local representatives too. I haven't had much luck with them myself, but maybe yours will be different. The volume of constituent feedback derived from statistics about consumer behavior too often outweighs the expression of individual voices, even in chorus. They've emptied the pews with promises of an American idolatry.

OK media: stop feeding us garbage.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reacting to an Epidemic Violence

The reporting around the horrific events at Northwestern Illinois University has, as in past school shootings, focused on the grief of families, biographical details about the suicide shooter, and the tangental issues of gun control, emergency safety procedures, and how society should perceive those with mental illness. It is certainly reasonable enough that reporting should cover these topics, but there are other issues just as much in the public interest.

Many of the shootings that become national events are not presented in a national context, despite commanding national attention. With over 20,000 gun homicides annually in the United States, there are certainly scores of similarly grieving families who do not get a national audience for their suffering, nor a national discussion of the conditions surrounding their personal tragedies.

How does the media choose which events to make into a national spectacle? The answer is not clear, but I think it's reasonable to suppose the decision-making bears a strong relation to what news management thinks consumers and advertisers want to hear about, and what sorts of lessons journalists and officials want to teach.

The narrative is that our society is changing in disturbing and dramatic ways, and that these events are evidence that, among other things, radical security measures are in order.

In this most recent instance, we are told the shooter recently discontinued his psychiatric medication. It is unlikely that discussion of this fact will touch upon why we decide certain thoughts and behaviors indicate a mental illness, or why we should not be at liberty to determine our own brain chemistries (even though corporations can patent our genes).

Perhaps these events are more likely to grab our attention when a shooter ends a rampage with a suicide. There are a number of reasons this should be especially startling to Americans: the perpetrator escapes judicial retribution; the shooter doesn't care about heroism -- however deluded such a conception of heroism might be -- and doesn't appear to be motivated by anything resembling a clear ideology (except perhaps the most brooding, escapist sort of nihilism -- although this shooter seems to have been dedicated to working for public welfare programs). Many people passionately believe suicide is a sin. And there's a frightening -- if not subconsciously-perceived -- similarity to the suicide attacks that we hear about in Iraq.

What could promote those feelings of helplessness here in America which one might otherwise presume to find among suicide bombers over there in Iraq, where citizens have been brutalized for decades by dictatorship, sanctions, war, and occupation? We live in a first-world nation, not a war zone.

To me, it is frighteningly indicative of what despairs such a shooter might have felt when I consider what it might mean to starving or homeless families that 50% of the world's military spending is by America's 5% of the world's population; or what it means to disenfranchised voters or children missing a parent that the United States has as many people behind bars as China and Russia combined. How many people are trapped in indentured servitude to pay off student loans, credit debt, or bad mortgages? How many people lost their retirement when they were laid off, when the dot-com bubble burst, when Enron imploded, when the housing market crumbled? How many people work two jobs but still can't make ends meet? What would the inflation rate be if food and fuel costs were factored in?

Why should anybody be made to feel like a piece of meat manipulated by some bean-counter somewhere with a spreadsheet?

Where I live, televisions have recently been installed on the city busses. There are three televisions on each bus; typical programming on these televisions includes yesterday's weather, news and entertainment headlines, 3-minute cooking shows, inane word puzzles, and an occasionally-crippled route map. And advertisements: frequently for no-name companies asking you to text them arbitrary strings of numbers from your cellphone.

These televisions also speak and play music over the bus's intercom, making it difficult to read a book. The exterior of the busses are sometimes painted over with advertisements, so it's difficult to even look out the windows. You can talk on a cellphone if you talk loud enough so nobody else can think.

On its website, the company responsible for the televisions boasts to prospective advertisers:

"Transit TV's unique medium and compelling programming offer a truly captive audeince [sic.] -- no channel changing, no DVR's -- maximum impact for your message."

A truly captive audience
: yes, we are treated as captives even on our way home from work. This is how we are regarded by those who fight for our eyeballs, our pocketbooks, our hearts and our minds.

Although we are raised to believe we live in a republic governed by law-abiding and democratically-elected representatives, we often find ourselves voiceless, powerless, repressed or ignored. Our minds have been occupied and our bodies entrapped: we must try not to be personally offended by affronts to our dignity perpetrated by systemic blindnesses, even as we are systematically alienated -- by identity politics, psychoanalysis, bureaucracies, and institutions -- from the effects of our own lives and from the most profound questions of self-determination from the time we become old enough to think a bit for ourselves.

Politicians rarely speak about citizens any longer -- we are more important as consumers: corporatist serfs rather than citizen electors. We are only seen insofar as we are seen as consumers: predictable statistical constructs defined by feudal corporations. The role of our legislature has been relegated to managing our demographics for the corporate policy-makers, in strict accordance with the tyranny of statisticians and bureaucrats trained in the blind rituals of quantitative reasoning. Our strings are tugged by nationalist rhetoric in the interest of multinational corporations who owe no national allegiances whatsoever.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher in large part responsible for our modern conception of a constitutional republic, suggested that "the impulsion of mere appetite is slavery."

Psychological captivity would seem to be a complex pathology. We see the symptoms more clearly than the cause: the language of disease is familiar, the image plain. We can readily find ways to identify with those who are victimized by straightforward afflictions.

It is easier to identify with young university students filled with potential than it is to identify with the Afghan children about whom General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked: "It is unfortunate that the cluster bombs -- the unexploded ones -- are the same color as the food packets. Unfortunately, they get used to running to yellow."

Even as we offer our sympathies to the victims of this awful crime, and the families of the victims, we should keep in mind that our public discourse about these events will leave important questions unasked -- or decided by numbers long after this story has left the headlines, or incoherent amidst a multitude of obscure details.

The causes for such events are complex, and the despair that makes such actions seem reasonable is not limited to sensational expressions of destructive discontent. We are not made aware of these events for objective or disinterested reasons, nor because it is in each of our best interest to have accounts of such events periodically thrust before us.

Somehow the failure to understand these things is our own failure -- for these events were not random, but rather, performed in a deliberate fashion. Yet the meaning escapes us, and we find only the fierce competition among those who would tell us what this all means. And should this have truly been a random occurrence, for all our analysis it may not in the end be possible for us to know any more sense in these horrors than any among those who witnessed them first-hand.

As we offer up our sympathies to those who have suffered here, we should remember that the shooter too was human and deserving of our sympathies, as this would seem to have been an individual tormented in some way -- whose last thoughts were some terminal nightmare, and whose parting deeds defy all logic. And yet, we can't rightly say what this man will find in the next world.

And though he may not see judicial retribution, we must also remember that justice is not the same as retribution, but rather, that harmony which makes retribution unnecessary.

The rapid police response at Northwestern Illinois University should demonstrate this is not at its core an enforcement issue, but some social problem that is not being adequately addressed in our public discourse. Perhaps the social problem is not that too many people can buy guns, but that too many people want to buy guns. Perhaps the fault here is not with numbers or procedures, but with where we look for faults in the first place.