Saturday, August 22, 2015

Spirit, Dualism, and Consciousness

"I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual." I've heard that from plenty of people. What does it mean? The not having a religion part I understand. Some who claim free-floating spirituality believe in God, and others don't. Most think they have something like a soul and some sort of cosmic link or immortality.

Duality, the belief that individuals have both a body and a non-material component, call it mind or soul or spirit, is an old concept. The ancient Egyptians had it, but it may be an idea that existed before civilization started.

I reject it. And I am not alone in that. Consider what Nick Lane has to say in Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution:

"Another paradox that can be addressed quite simply, at least in part, is the perception that our minds are immaterial, and our feelings ineffable . . . The essential insight is that the mind does not, indeed cannot, detect the existence of the brain. We perceive neither the brain nor the physical nature of the mind by thinking about it. Only the objective methods of science have linked the mind with the physical workings of the brain. How remarkably misguided we have been in the past is exemplified by the ancient Egyptians, who in embalming their kings preserved the heart and other organs with great care (they took the heart to be the seat of emotion and mind), but scooped the brain our through the nose with a hook . . . They were uncertain what the brain was for.

That was published in 2009. Ponder it. Our minds do not seem material, the feeling is of a consciousness immersed in a body immersed in the material world (or the illusion of a material world, if you belong to an illusionist religion or sect of philosophy).

Now consider what Ludwig Wittgenstein had to say in Philosophical Investigations:

412. The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain-process: how does it come about that this does not come into the consideration of our ordinary life? This idea of a difference in kind is accompanied by slight giddiness — which occurs when we are performing a piece of logical slight-of-hand. (The same giddiness attacks us when we think of certain theorems in set theory.) When does this feeling occur in the present case? It is when I, for example, turn my attention in a particular way on to my own consciousness, and, astonished, say to myself: THIS is supposed to be produced by a process in the brain! — as it were clutching my forehead.

Of course both Wittgenstein and Lane go on quite a bit. We can dissect the idea endlessly. We can watch someone else go unconscious when they sniff chloroform, take a sleeping pill, get hit on the head, or catch a bullet. But we still feel like a spirit, and if we try to analyze that, may end up scratching our heads and noticing that we are aware of the sensation of our skulls being scratched.

And so the quest to understand consciousness by understanding that mass of neurons known as the brain goes on. And even if it does come to be understood by a few, as quantum physics is, most people will either have to take the new understanding on faith, or stick to the older idea.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Robert Kennedy, The Enemy Within, and Labor Unions

Robert Kennedy is rapidly fading from the national consciousness. Only those of us who lived through the period of his activity remember him. At best younger people know him as the assassinated brother of President John Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy wrote a number of books. Lately I have been reading what is perhaps his best known book, The Enemy Within [Harper & Brothers, New York, 1960]. I am reading it as part of my study of the influence of organized crime on business, society and politics (and vice-versa). See, for instance, Uncle Raymond Clinton, Or Is Hillary Still Mobbed Up? [May 25, 2015]

It is possible that Robert titled The Enemy Within more aptly than he knew. Enemy mainly chronicles Kennedy's investigations of Hoffa and the Teamsters Union and associates. It paints a pretty grim picture of how bad things can get when a union is corrupted or mobbed up. But it also shows how glaringly narrow-visioned Robert Kennedy was, and raises the question of whether, at the time it was written, Robert Kennedy knew where the Kennedy family wealth came from.

Today it is well known that Joseph Kennedy, Robert's father, was an important organized criminal, in addition to being an important legitimate business and political figure. In popular culture you can see that illustrated in the later seasons of the TV series Boardwalk Empire, for instance.

But in the 1950's Robert (born in 1925) certainly acted as if he was ignorant of where the money came from that made for a luxurious childhood, a Harvard education, law school, a career in the Justice Department, and working at a high level for Congress at an early age.

As I waded through this often tedious book about dead crooks and the men who investigated them, I came upon this delightful passage:
Fortunately, our work was not without its lighter moments. There is an office building on Fourteenth Street in New York City whose tenants include a number of labor unions. Knowing that some of these unions were under investigation, and suspecting that perhaps the building was owned by a racketeer or perhaps even by "The Mob," Walter May, Paul Tierney, and Bellino checked the records. They were shocked to learn who owned the building.

It was my family.
Of course the investigation stopped there. Had some other reputed mob family owned the building, Robert would have kept digging like a terrier.

Many researchers have alleged that Robert did indeed know his dad had been a mobster, at least in the distant past, based on what Robert (and his brother John, then a Senator and also on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) avoided investigating.

But something else is obvious in the book. Kennedy crucified the Teamsters and James Hoffa. It helped turn the nation against unions in general. Republican politicians, Hollywood and the business propaganda machine went on a decades-long spree telling Americans that all unions are corrupt, that every member is a Union Thug.

But on page after page, where does most of the corruption come from? From the businesses that employ teamsters. Hoffa & crew misuse union dues, to be sure. But the extra money is coming from business owners who find it is good business to pay Hoffa, say, $100,000 in cash to get results that save $1 million on the payroll end.

Democratic unions, run honestly by elected officials responsible to their members, has always been a goal to almost all union members. Corrupting those unions has been a goal of employers and organized crime, which are often the same thing.

There are some reasonably honest businesses too, perhaps a majority. But a careful examination of the record shows that the interface between organized crime and profit-taking is a loose one. In addition to the Joe Kennedy types who move money back and forth gracefully between criminal enterprises (like importing whiskey during Prohibition), stock market scams, and legitimate businesses, there are the many CEOs and stockholders who don't mind making a little extra money by dumping toxic wastes, failing to invest in worker safety, or selling dangerous and shoddy products to consumers.

Most people are complex, and the more successful they are, the more complex they have to be. Joe Kennedy amassed a vast fortune at other people's expense, but it is hard to criticize the job he did helping to set up the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). If it weren't so tedious, that story would make a good "It takes a Thief" type TV series.

Maybe, if elected President, Robert Kennedy would have ended the Vietnam War his brother started. Maybe he would have led America to Camelot. Maybe he would have expiated the sins of his father. On the other hand, his regime might have been the most corrupt and hypocritical in U.S. history. We'll never know.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Overgeneralization

People who are smart, or think they are smart, often criticize others for their inability to "connect the dots," or to see a pattern that makes sense of otherwise unconnected information.

But both smart people and not-so-smart people have problems with overgeneralization. That is, once they have figured out or learned a general rule, they sometimes fail to see when there are exceptions to the rule.

In other words, they connect dots that, in reality, are not connected. We all do it. It is one of the difficulties of life.

Partly this is driven by necessity, partly by laziness.

We all have limited time. For any given task we must limit the time we can commit, otherwise the many other tasks in our life will not get done. This is true in decision making and in intellectual pursuits as well as daily tasks.

Limits on decision making time are often externally imposed. Most American citizens don't devote very much time to politics, for instance. A fair proportion of citizens vote in elections, and there is a deadline for each election. We are only willing to devote so much time to learning about the candidates and choosing between them. We might listen to ads, if not willingly, and some voters listen to debates. But how many voters go over a candidate's voting record? And even if a citizen had nothing else to do, to actually read all the words of all the legislation that elected officials vote on is impossible. Even the politicians don't do it: they rely on their staffs and on the work of the committees that write the legislation.

So we generalize. We let simple criteria guide us. In most general elections most voters simply vote either Democratic Party or Republican Party. Primaries are more difficult, because the choices are within a party. That is one reason so few people vote in primaries: they don't know who to vote for. Some people vote based on a key issue like Social Security or pro-life/pro-choice, or based on perceptions of personality, or even just handsomeness.

Generalizations can be untrue, but the more difficult cases are when they are mostly true, but have important exceptions. Since the beginning of the science of astronomy, objects in the sky were classified into the sun, moon, planets, and stars. But when a sufficiently powerful telescope was developed, it turned out some of the stars were actually galaxies. So to every animal that swims is not a fish: some are marine mammals.

One of my favorite areas to watch people overgeneralize is in food, diet, and health. The best example right now is glutenphobia. Gluten, the protein component of wheat, can cause reactions in individuals whose immune systems are out of balance. But this is rare. Yet by constantly complaining, these gluten-intolerant individuals got food companies to note which foods are gluten-free. Other people (most people thrive on gluten) started seeing the words "gluten free" on labels and decided that gluten must be a poison. Quack doctors, pseudoscientists and "health food" corporations realized they could make a lot of quick bucks by promoting this fear.

Fear and hope are big drivers towards overgeneralization in ordinary life. Barked at by a dog? Beware of all dogs. Win a jackpot at a casino? Lose all your money trying to hit another jackpot.

Fear can save your life, of course. Not to long ago, in a state of nature, when there were still lions and tigers and wolves and bears to worry about, fear was a friend. Fear kept people alive. Hoping to kill a grizzly bear alone with a flint knife was a bad use of hope. Somewhat in the same way that people now get immunological diseases because their immune systems are not exposed to enough bacteria and viruses, now our fears tend towards the irrational. Our fear system overgeneralizes.

Almost everyone has life experiences that show us that some particular overgeneralization is wrong. As a child I was taught Jews were bad people who had killed Jesus. Anti-jewish remarks were a commonplace where I went to school (Roman Catholic Schools) through 8th grade. In 9th grade, at a different school, I made the usual anti-semitic remarks. Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that many of the students in my classes were Jewish, and that they tended to be the kids I wanted to be friends with. Fortunately they were gracious and came to accept me, once I stopped talking like a jackass.

By now police in America should know that being a black and a teenage male does not mean you are a criminal. Policing can be a difficult job, but that is no excuse for making judgments about people based on appearances. A poorly-dressed person may be poorly-dressed precisely because he (or she) is not as greedy and unscrupulous and the people in nice suits.