Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

Cultivating Realism

(About a 5 minute read)

Human diversity being what it is, I take it as evident that some folks are more realistic than other folks — just like some folks are more athletic than other folks.   But the fact some folks are more realistic than other folks does not mean that anyone is completely realistic.  For better or worse, we humans have not evolved a completely realistic brain.

If we had evolved a completely realistic brain, we would not need science.  That’s because science is basically a group of methods or procedures that have been developed over the ages to compensate for the human tendency towards a lack of realism in thought and belief.  In short, science is a crutch.   It’s a tool for a non-realistic brain (or at least a partly non-realistic brain) to use so that it can function as a realistic brain.  At least that’s one way to look at science.

It’s a great puzzle to me why the human brain is not entirely realistic — given that it’s had several million years to evolve into a purely realistic brain.  It must be that during the entire multi-million year history of brain growth and expansion, selective mechanisms for a realistic brain were never sufficient to produce a wholly realistic brain — despite that there would seem to be great advantages to being wholly realistic.

Either that, or the mutations necessary for pure realism never came about.

On the surface, given millions of years, it seems almost impossible that it has turned out the way it has turned out.  But perhaps it  seems impossible to me largely because I simply don’t understand the odds.

Some days, I think most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to realism.   We just don’t like being realistic — we don’t enjoy it — and so, there must be great incentives for us to practice realistic thought, or great disincentives not to practice it.   Hence, I usually think we limit our realistic thinking to only those areas of our lives in which it matters the most to us to think realistically.

I know an automobile mechanic, for instance, who is almost wholly realistic in his role as a mechanic.  But get him in his fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning and he will swallow with childlike trust any and all sorts of quackery from his pastor’s mouth.  Life has face-slapped my friend the mechanic into being realistic in his work.  That is, automobile mechanics has served as a discipline that’s punished him whenever he has departed from realism while engaged in it.  But life has not done him the same favor in his religion.  Hence, he’s a realistic man in his work and a quite fantastic man in his religion.

Some days, as I’ve said, I think we as a species are only as realistic as it is absolutely necessary for us to be.  Wherever life cuts us a little slack, we depart from realism into fantasy.

Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pointed out that very few, if any, of us had a strong will to truth.   For most of us, our other wills, interests, passions, etc were much stronger than any will to truth we might possess.  It was a revolutionary thought for its time.  Today, we might not use precisely his language when speaking of the issue, but regardless of whatever words we use to express the idea, the notion that humans are quite often less than realistic is established by modern psychology beyond any serious doubt.

That fact — the fact we are not a realistic species — presents all sorts of problems.  For instance, I do not believe you can understand human politics if you think of humans as an essentially realistic species.  (Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?)

I think it is important — crucially important — to one’s health and happiness for a person to practice a discipline.  When it comes to practicing a discipline, the exact nature of the discipline — the kind of discipline — almost does not matter.  What matters is that one practices a discipline.  Any discipline.

A “discipline”, as I’m using the term here, is an art, science, or craft that to be successfully practiced requires one to be realistic.   It can be nearly anything so long as it requires substantial realism to succeed in it.   The absolute need for realism is what makes it a discipline.

Why should we practice a discipline?  Well, realism is not a side of human nature that comes all that easy to us.  I think we must cultivate it.  Hence, the need for a discipline.  Beyond that, realism seems to be like a crucial nutrient.  Without it, we grow sick, malnourished, or unbalanced.  We might not enjoy its taste, but on some level we need it.

We have all heard over and over again this or that person admonish us to “cultivate our imaginations” or to “dream big, dream often”.   Well, those things are important, but so is realism.  And, so far as I can see, realism does not come easily to our species.  It comes with effort.  So it must be cultivated.  Yet, I believe its cultivation is usually neglected.

T.S. Eliot somewhere said the average person can stand reality for no more than ten minutes at a time.   That might sound extreme until you really start thinking about it.


Originally posted October 9,  2010.

Scandalous! The Shocking Truth About Objects!

(About a 9 minute read)

It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:

What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?

Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.

Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them!  Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.

To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists.  Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11.  I was off!  Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!

I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!

Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!

We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.

Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces.  So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?

Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions.  Simply dreadful conclusions!  I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!

The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!

Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds.  Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.

Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”.  But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so.  For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds.  And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.

Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!

The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots.  Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.  Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.

The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance.  Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace.  But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object?  Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.

For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land.  So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object?  Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago?  A half million years ago?  Today?  And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?

There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain.  That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone.  But we must ask,  what could be the nature of that essential nature?  For it certainly cannot be something physical.

Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness.  That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations!  The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence.  That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”.  But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion?  There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion.  Simply none.

I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues.  We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans.  Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.

In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations.  And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects.  They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.

Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!

The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.

To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand.  Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects.  All objects.  Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left.  At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?

You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand.  Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”,  we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction!  For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into.  Frightful!

And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects.  When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?

Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects.  In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.

A Most Titillating Implication!

No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me.  Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much!  Far too much fun!”.  But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.

 You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities.  But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?

The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post.  I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog.  For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!

Late Night Thoughts: Infatuation, Invention, Creativity, Pragmatism, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

It snowed last night.  Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them.  Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.

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Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration.  If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation.  But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.

Because of Janet.

I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her.  That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love.  I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.

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Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.

I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.

There had been about a dozen.

Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.

And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.

“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul.  We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea.  Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it.  People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.

Two years later.  “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”

“Oh, those are something new.  Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago.  We call them, ‘Phone Cards’.  Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.

“Why are you crying, Sir?  Can I get you a towel?  Um…maybe a few…?”

“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked.  It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”

“Sir?  Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”

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I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.

Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence.  There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.

One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.

The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting.  Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.

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A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful?  Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame.  Why is that, Paul?”

“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”

“Because you know everything, Paul.  You’ve told me so yourself!”

“Oh, that’s right!  Yes, I did.  But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’.  For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”

“You’re such a real man, Paul.  Such a real man.”

“Thank you so much, Sophie!  Your lavish praise is so annoying.”

“Just get on with it.  What’s your opinion?”

“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology.  Maybe it’s still current.  According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”

“Figures.  It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”

“This time it’s about you women, too.  You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex.  And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted.  Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”

“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”

“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.

“Shuddup Paul!”

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It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.

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A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath.  “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.

Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo.  You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.

We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.  It was a real conversation, too.  I made a point of that.  When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.

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It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems.  Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.

The problem was tackled with scientific precision.  Hundreds of studies were done.  Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations.  Guard rails installed at key places.  Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds.  Seat belts made mandatory.  Driving tests required before licensing.  Air bags.  Child safety seats.  And so forth.

None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem.  But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%.  And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up.  Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.

That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems.  Pragmatically.  But the exception has always  been “human problems”.  Then the Puritan rears up in us.  We become, not pragmatists, but moralists.  Not rationalists, but irrationalists.

Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms.  Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.

And some of us wish to do exactly that.

But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much.  The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America.  We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.

It isn’t sex that’s shameful.  It’s moralism.

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

Tara Lyn: Leaning Into the Light

(About a 10 minute read)

At the time I knew her, Tara had but one passion in life: People.  Specifically, the people she personally knew.  I don’t recall her ever mentioning someone as remote to her as a celebrity or some other personage she’d never met, but she was just as fervent in discussing her friends and acquaintances as any newlywed is about discussing their beloved.

Indeed, perhaps the only really significant difference between a newlywed and Tara was that a newlywed tends to ignore any faults or flaws in their beloved, while Tara seemed incapable of ignoring anything about the people she was so fascinated by.  That’s by no means, however, to imply she was overtly critical of people.

As a rule, she was not.  Or at least, she appeared not to criticize people.

It took me awhile to catch on to her because she would say things about people, such as “Brian is so jealous of Sammy”, that I assumed meant she was judging them.  That is, I assumed she believed, as I did, that jealousy is a negative emotion, and that she must therefore on some level disapprove of it in Brian.

Gradually, however, I learned that Tara was oddly — quite oddly, when you think about it (for it is human nature to judge) — rather on the dispassionate side when it came to communicating her thoughts about people.  Almost as dispassionate, I sometimes thought, as a chemist reporting on the interaction of sodium and chlorine.

Of course, I’m sure she did in fact judge people.  How could she not?  But the fact is, she seldom expressed judgment.  She spoke of the commonplace and the outrageous in the very same tone of voice, the very same body language.  She could say — and this is a true example, near as I can recollect it now — “Danny hit Rene last night because she said something he didn’t like about his getting a job.” — and sound just the same as when she once idly mentioned that Rene and Danny were moving in together.

The one time I can now recall Tara actually expressing disapproval — if that’s what it indeed was — was when she told me about a young woman who, at the age of 14, had been raped by her step-father.  Tara ended her otherwise dispassionate account with something along these lines, “She was always telling jokes and laughing before that happened.  Then she kept to herself a lot, and never much laughed again.”  I have a fairly vivid memory of her saying that because it was so rare of her to express disapproval.  But she expressed it so subtly, so gently, that I think you would have needed to know her as well as I did by then to detect the disapproval in her voice.   Disapproval or sorrow, I’m still not sure to this day which.

Tara was one of those very rare people who seemed to more or less embody Spinoza’s statement, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”  She would not, however, have ever heard of Spinoza, and had I quoted him to her, her first question would surely have been, “Is he a friend of yours?”

She could show surprising general insight into people, even though she herself seldom spoke of people in general terms.  I once shared a poem with her that I’d written about a fictional “Kathy”.   After I’d read the poem to her, Tara fell silent, looking deeply perplexed.  “What do you think of it?”

“I don’t know.” Tara said.

“You didn’t like it?”

“No, it’s not that.  It’s just that I’ve never known anyone in my life like Kathy.  Did you make her up?”  I no longer have the poem to test it, but I’d wager eight in ten people would not have so quickly realized Kathy was a fictional character.

I hired Tara as my “secretary” in my final year in business.  “Secretary” was a bit of a stretch; she had almost no real secretarial skills; and she served instead as my data entry clerk.  That’s to say, I hired her with the expectation I could train her up right and whole to be a real secretary, an expectation she proved to have little or no interest in fulfilling, just as she had little or no interest in anything other than the people she knew.  I eventually resigned myself to her much needed help with data entry, for that she was willing to do, and do well.

Tara also resisted any urge I had to keep to a strictly formal employer/employee relationship.  A mutual friend once told me, “Tara says you’re more of an uncle to her than a boss”, and I had to admit, that was how she treated me.  There came a time, for instance, when she made a habit of calling me each evening in the office.  Around nine o’clock the phone would ring, Tara.  For the next forty-five minutes to an hour, she would fill me in on what everyone had been doing since she her last update during her working hours.  It took her that long because Tara so seldom, if ever, generalized.  Instead, she recounted details.  All the details.

It also took her that long because she quite often asked me for advice.  I once questioned her about that, and she replied, “You’re the only one who gives me good advice.  Everyone else just says things like, ‘Go burn his house down’, but you give me things I can really do.”  Which was ironic because, by that time, I had discovered that — of the two of us — Tara was the wisest.

No, she didn’t know she was wise, but she was.  And she was wise in a very special way — a way that is often neglected or under-valued by Westerners. For we in the West so often think of wisdom as something shown through a person’s words.  So far as I recall, the closest Tara ever came to saying something that might pass as wise with many of us was perhaps when she one day told me, “Boss, I don’t worry about doing the right thing or the wrong thing like you do.  I just try to do the best thing.”

Somewhere in his book, Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez mentions that the Inuit word for “wise person” literally means, “Someone who makes wisdom visible through their actions or behavior”.  The word has nothing specifically to do with what a person says or doesn’t say, except as that might be accounted a part of their overall behavior.  Rather, the emphasis is on visible actions (and perhaps equally telling moments when one chooses not to act).  Tara, I came to believe, was a wise person in the sense of the Inuit word.

It was quite a long haul for me to arrive at that conclusion about her.  For one thing, I had to overcome my prejudice that wise people spout wise sayings.  The thought that a wise person might not say many wise things at all was simply foreign to me.  Another prejudice I needed to overcome was that someone who routinely asked me for advice might actually be wiser than me.  But when I finally got around to observing how skillfully Tara appeared to be negotiating her life, as compared to how clumsily I seemed to be negotiating my own, it revolutionized my understanding of her.

For instance, at about midpoint during the year I employed her, Tara’s boyfriend abruptly decided to cheat on her.  Tara spent all of three days and nights crying on her couch, waiting for him to come home.  Then she had, as she put it, the revelation that, “I was doing no one any good, least of all myself, by feeling sorry for me”.  With that, she picked herself up, and returned to her circle of friends.  The ache was not over for her, nor were any of the issues involved resolved.  But she was firmly set on getting on with her life, come what might of the boyfriend business.

I doubt Tara had ever heard of — or at least had absorbed — the expression, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”, but no one had to have told her that, because she lived it.  Not just when her boyfriend cheated on her, but in one manner after the next.  Tara could drop an emotional burden as spontaneously as a child can let go of a grandparent’s hand to run play on a swing.  I believe the metaphor of a child is correct because hearts as resilient as hers usually belong either to children or to sages.

But was Tara really a sage?

I do not think she would compare with the Buddha, nor even, perhaps, with a few other people I actually know.  I saw her falter more than once; that is, I saw her do something I regarded as foolish, sometimes terribly foolish.  But it seemed to me that each time she faltered, she picked herself up, and made the best of her new situation.  Sage or not, I am fairly certain she was at the time I knew her, wiser than me.  Yet, only if you looked at, not what she said, but at what she did or did not do.

Barry López again:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

I mean it as no criticism when I say that Tara would not have fully understood Lopez’s words.  She wasn’t educated well enough to entirely grasp what Lopez might mean by “finding darkness not only in one’s culture but in oneself”, for instance.  And life’s “great pressing questions” never seemed to me to cross her mind, at least not in any abstract way.

But Tara was as level-headed, as dispassionate as anyone I’ve known when it came to seeing people as they are, seeing both the light and darkness of them.  And she was surely empathetic, although I’m not certain that her empathy often rose to the level of compassion.  It might have, but I just don’t know.  She did, however, in so many ways, “lean into the light”.

I never discovered even a hint of malice or cruelty in her.  She was forgiving perhaps to a fault (unless one understands her willingness to forgive as a refusal to emotionally cling to things she had no control over).  She strove to tell the truth when talking of the one thing that really mattered to her, people.

Her circle of friends and acquaintances included many people whose behavior can be clinically described as “dysfunctional”, people full of petty hatreds, foolish envies, habitual cowardice towards the more powerful, and just as habitual bullying towards the less powerful then they; people who never seem to value what they have, nor ever get what they want.  Tara lived in that world, but she was not of it.  It did not turn her.

Instead, she was to some remarkable degree true to herself, albeit not like a stone, but like water.  She didn’t oppose things that were not her, she flowed around them, under them, or over them.  I would not call her a sage at the time I knew her, more than twenty years ago, but I would not be at all surprised if I’d call her that today, should we ever meet again.  Last I knew, she was married to a man she loved and the mother of six children.