The End of the Era of Orphanage

I am prone to say that there is a bigger issue at stake in something like life logging. As Carl Sagan pointed out in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, we’re all orphans abandoned at the doorstep of time. Ten thousand generations of humans have inhabited this planet and the most tenacious genealogist can perhaps recount seven of those generations. Indeed, your great grandchildren won’t even know your name. I recall one of Andy Rooney’s commentaries on 60 Minutes where he wandered through a number of old cemeteries, grown over, fences falling, headstones cracked and weathered to illegibility. It was obviously a very elegiac piece. He ended it by saying that we ought to make an indelible record of every person who’s ever lived. And we ought to. There was a time when we had to be pragmatic and pragmatism necessitated a massive forgetting. The realm of what’s pragmatic has grown. Time to stop forgetting.

I watch all the animals that scamper about the city and it is horrible that they lead such anonymous lives. They live beautifully without making an impression, they fall ill and there is no aid, they die without a thought from their fellows and their corpses are left where they fall. Once I saw a documentary in which a paleoanthropologist pulled a hominid skull out of a drawer and held it next to the skull of a saber-toothed tiger so that the two fangs of the tiger skull straddled the occipital bun of the human and lined up perfectly with two small holes in the back of the little human’s skull. Of those ten thousand generations, perhaps the majority were the lives of humans led as animals: noble, but uncelebrated lives of struggle leading to unmourned graves. Every one of those lives were ones of immense drama, and every one necessary to carry us down to the place we find ourselves today, and yet nearly to a one, utterly gone. And despite all our advancements, the lives of almost everyone alive today are not one iota less anonymous. In life, a titan; in death, dust.

Sometimes I am prone to a great man theory of history: that we masses are indebted for all of our modern day prosperity on an incredibly small number of geniuses without whom none of it would be possible. We common folk are parasites upon their achievements. But then I consider this world into which we are born. We just found it as it was, fully build. Massive buildings, sprawling cities whose assessed value runs to the trillions of dollars, public works projects the scale of which is baffling. I am dependent for my protection from the elements upon a building. Where this building came from, I have no idea. I have no idea who built it. I have no idea who first wanted it and commissioned its construction. I have no idea when the presumably original utility basement was remodeled into a living space. I have no idea how it was handed down and eventually would up with it’s present owner. As Graham Robb points out in The Discovery of France, even what we take to be untrammeled nature has already been drained, logged and contoured by generations so forgotten that we can no longer detect their impact. Countless trillions of person-hours have gone into making the world what it is, almost all of them completely forgotten. We just found the world as it is and don’t even consider it. It is Newton’s old, “If I have seen so far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” There is a grandeur in the accumulated accomplishment of all the forgotten people who have carried the species down through the ages to deposit us were we have found ourselves. They should get their names etched in the base of their great accomplishment. Perhaps life logging will result in a certain solipsism, but in other sectors, perhaps it will chip away at a solipsism from which we already suffer.

But then, but then …

Atheism is more than just one belief about the nonexistence of the gods. It is a habit of mind. Once one has ceased to believe in god, one has only started to be an atheist. One must then purge one’s self of the thoughts that grow out of god. The need for eternity, the sole valuation of the eternal, the denigration of all things transient — in other words, the denigration of all things — is the most pernicious of such habits. There is obviously something to secularization thesis. Sometimes I think that this rage for permanence is just a bastion of my former Christianity. The insistence on the illusion of eternity is part of the myth of humanity as standing somehow opposed to and outside of nature. But we are as much animals and artifacts of nature now as ever. Perhaps we should live our lives like Buddhist sand mandala: exercises in the transient, in the timely. Coming to terms with becoming, evolution, development, decay and passing is how one is to be in harmony with the world, is it not?

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The Squirrel Path of Naigedajo

Koike, Kazuo and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, issue 3, The Gateless Barrier, July 1987, p. 39

Before I leave the issue of animals, I guess one more observation.

Our cat is an indoor cat and I like to torment him by enticing the squirrels into the backyard. I leave a trail of nuts along the top of the fence and the cat sits in the window despairing to bury his fangs into the throats of one of those rodents. And for their part, the squirrels love it. They dance and cavort outside the window, just inches from the cat. But there’s more to it than nabbing the nuts with impunity. The squirrels seem to revel in braving death. They will take up position on the fence and lock themselves into some mental faceoff with the cat, the most ready human analog that comes to mind is the contest of will between pitcher and batter in a baseball game (only with death on the line). They stair intently at each other. After a period of fixed stillness, they both begin to twitch their tails in some sort of converging harmonic. There’s this elaborate dance — a dance of death, if you will.

What is surprising to me is the utter level of clumsiness that seems to be effective for a predator. A predator doesn’t have to get the drop on their prey. Frequently enough, prey spot predator and seem to have some sort of prey behavior where they recognize and accept their prey destiny. It’s enough to make me believe in the Inuit practice of killing only the whale that an elder has confirmed has given itself willingly to the village. It’s like Freud’s death drive already present in some common ancestor.

Alternately, last week S. and I were sitting in the back yard and a regular outdoor cat who works a circuit up and down the alley of our block made a stop at our place. The nuts were out and so were the squirrels and I braced myself to intervene to save one of the creatures that I had enticed into harm’s way. The cat leapt up to the fencerail. The squirrels scattered, except one who stood his ground less than a foot away from the cat. This is a tough, gristly, street-smart black cat. He was prone for the kill. We could see the tension for the pounce build in his body. But this squirrel didn’t back down. They stared at each other and both did the tail routine. But after a few minutes of this psychic altercation, the cat relaxed into a submissive position. The squirrel won the faceoff through some means entirely invisible.

I acquired all of my knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Bushido and Kendo as a pre-teen through an intense study of Lone Wolf and Cub comics. And intense study is how I would characterize my interest in these books. To this day I still find occasion to break out some concept or bit of wisdom gleaned back then. In issue three of this most conceptual story, Itto Ogami is hired by town politicians to assassinate a local radical Buddhist priest who is militating for the peasants. When he finds that he cannot deliver the killing blow, the monk counsels Mr. Ogami on why he cannot:

That which is not … cannot be slain. You cannot kill me for I am a leaf of Naigedajo. Forget the self and unite with Mu, Nothingness.

To kill a man, you must first project the aura of death. Your opponent reciprocates, projecting his aura of death — or perhaps an aura of fear. Thus united can you wield the sword. This is Mu. But if no aura opposes yours … that which you project rebounds upon you. It is impossible to make such a cut. If you force yourself, you yourself will be cut.

Like Sensei Splinter, I think that squirrel must walk the gateless path of Naigedajo.

American Pseudo-Religion; Science and Experience

The title of David Brooks’s op-ed Tuesday, “The Neural Buddhists” (The New York Times, 13 May 2008), sounded cyberpunk and that was enough to entice me to read it. Turns out it’s some comments on the trend in neurological and genetic research toward characterizing the religious tendency and the religious experience. A lot of the editorial is wishful thinking on the part of a religious conservative, but then there’s the musings from which the piece draws its title:

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

I often point out that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. today is not Mormonism or any branch of Christianity, but the poorly conceptualized “spiritual but not religious” (“Teens: Spiritual, But Not Religious,” smarties, 11 January 2005). This isn’t some entirely post-1960s baby-boom or gen-X phenomenon. It is the latest manifestation of a long line of uniquely American religion stretching from the Enlightenment deism of the founding generation to the transcendentalism of the late Nineteenth Century to the Progressive era psycho-spirituality of William James. It pulls together an idiosyncratic combination of Christianity, grand historical conspiracy theories à la the Freemasons, various strains of mysticism, yeoman pragmatism, naturalism, popular science, amateur philosophical speculation, do-gooderism, health fads, self-help, popular psychology and positive thinking. It’s all of a piece with American mesianism, paranoia, individualism, pragmatism and the melting pot. It’s a little incipient and a little too convenient for the American way of life, having dispensed with the hard truths and the dark side of religion as well as any of the really imposing moral injunctions, but there it is. And Mr. Brooks is right to point out that the best fit for this among the ancient religions is Buddhism.

As for the rest of the article, it’s just the ontological argument for the existence of god without the minor premise. And the refutation is the same today as it was in the Eighteenth Century: you can’t imagine something into existence. A recurrent dream of Pegasus, however deeply felt, is not the existence of Pegasus. Conversely, the Pegasus of the recurrent dream is not what people would mean were they to speak of the existence of Pegasus. The question isn’t whether one has a particular brain experience. People have all manner of experiences, imaginary and not, as well as everything in between — in fact, the vast bulk of human experience probably lies somewhere between the real and the imagined. The question is whether or not a given experience correlates to an existent external state of affairs.

Amidst the natural sciences the question of correlation between a purported experience and a state of affairs external to mind is not something determined in some crass way. “It really happed.” “No it didn’t.” “Yes it did!” There is simply no sense dwelling on a single instance. Scientists discount a sample size of one. If there is too much dispute over a particular instance, simply drop it in favor of further inquiry. Fleeting and unitary experiences are dismissed in scientific practice in favor of what might be called the intersubjective (see e.g. intersubjectivity or intersubjective verifiability), the societal nature of scientific knowledge or a Wittgensteinian denial of a private language in favor of the essentially public nature of our scientific discourses.

For all of Nietzsche’s fretting that the death of god had unchained the Earth from the Sun, religion was every bit as arbitrary and subjective as its adherents today accuse irreligion of being. In the end, the whole of society swings over the abyss on a tether of fundamentally ungrounded beliefs. Science at least has the merit of basing its propositional criteria on egalitarian public discourse. Religion is based on all manner of purportedly private experience — revelations, miracles, conversations with the gods, passions, et cetera — all considered beyond criticism. Some people are chosen, enlightened or who knows what — the plans of the gods are inscrutable — and the rest of us, not so exalted, accept or reject religious belief on the authority of those possessed of such experiences. To those who prefer something more determinate, Jesus reiterates the Deuteronomic injunction, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7, Deuteronomy 6:16).

This is one of the major divisions between science and religion. Were science to start poking its nose into religious business, the religious person would object that the spiritual is a realm of deeply personal experience, not subject to the critical dissection of all comers. And yet in it’s public aspect, religious practitioners are expected to take the word of people having had religious experiences. No attempt is made to abstract an experience away from an individual experiencer. Religion believes every obscurantist story that any old quack tells, at least where not condemned by religious authority.

A recognition deeply built into the practice of natural science, even if never properly conceptualized or explicitly taught, is the recognition of the fallibility, or at least the broad diversity in function, of the human mind. The well observed fact of low brain performance, stretching from simple poor judgment, forgetfulness, error, misperception and dishonesty to careerism, optical illusions and dreams, all the way to delusion, mental disorder, group psychology and mass hysteria has been incorporated into the background of scientific practice. In this regard a particular theory of mind is a part of the body of scientific practice. And, importantly, it’s not a complicated theory of mind — though one can pursue it to various levels of sophistication — but rather one built upon rather day-to-day observation of human foibles. I think the books of reference here are not any of the ones that Mr. Brooks lists, but David Linden’s The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God or Gary Marcus’s Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

One doesn’t have to search very far in one’s own life to find examples of how the brain, while a miracle of evolution, only works so well. At least a couple of times a week I experience a random, spasmodic jerk of some extremity. My cube neighbor at work, my brother, my highschool physics teacher and a former priest all have facial ticks, some rather elaborate, of which I am certain they are completely unaware and were they to become aware, would not be able to control. So-called religious phenomena — feelings of destiny, hearing voices, talking to god, heightened emotional states, impulses, a sense of unity, feelings of disembodiment — are of a piece with this. I don’t deny that religious people have the experiences that they claim. Subjective experiences are experiences nonetheless. What I deny is that such experiences have any greater significance.

Or for that matter there is the even more commonplace matter of difference in perspective. In this sense science is a highly stylized political methodology for producing consensus amidst the rocky shoals of vast differences in human experience.

These commonplace observations are the cause for the emphasis on repeatability and independent verification in scientific practice. It’s not enough for one person to have had an experience, or even for a very large number of people to have shared that experience for it to be established as a scientific fact. The standard for a scientific fact is that it must be something accessible to all; it must be something determinately replicable. A scientific community employs a fairly common engineering method for combating error: given that humans are cheap and plentiful, accommodate for the very low performance of each individual unit of scientific production by performing each task in redundancy. The inaccuracy of any given unit is cancelled out over the span of the entire system.

This is also the cause for the conservatism in science when it comes to abandonment of a long-standing theory. Nonscientists are fond of pointing out one or two contrary studies or a handful of unexplained mysteries and thinking a major theory overturned. The more efficient explanation is to discount early anomalies as human fallibility. The efficient practice when dealing with a theory propped up by thousands of observations, millions of person hours of labor and the consilience of logically related theories and at the same time a small set of recalcitrant data is to wait and see. That’s not to say that anomalies are dismissed — from economics, to discount something is to calculate the present day value of something that will potentially be of a different value in the future — they are merely tabled pending additional information. But should the accumulation of anomalies reaches a critical mass, they will eventually be widely admitted into the corpus of accepted fact. It’s the other side of the redundancy equation.

“We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.” True, just not the ones Mr. Brooks is thinking of. I think that what we’re seeing is essentially Antony Flew’s “Theology and Falsification” playing out on a societal scale. Atheists keep on raising unanswerable objections to religious belief — and not just in polemics, but ubiquitously in the zeitgeist — and religious people are staging a fighting retreat by continually lowering the bar and circumscribing ever more narrowly the propositional territory it is that they are defending. Neural Buddhism, spiritual but not religious — people may continue to profess all manner of confusion on the matter — it’s all a track to an essentially irreligious society.