Saturday, July 28, 2007

"The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion"

I'm pretty conflicted about abortion, but I am crystal clear about egregious and unambiguous hypocrisy. This article (originally published in 2000 but recently posted to DailyKos) is a fascinating read:

Abortion is a highly personal decision that many women are sure they'll never have to think about until they're suddenly faced with an unexpected pregnancy. But this can happen to anyone, including women who are strongly anti-choice. So what does an anti-choice woman do when she experiences an unwanted pregnancy herself? Often, she will grin and bear it, so to speak, but frequently, she opts for the solution she would deny to other women - abortion.


"We too have seen our share of anti-choice women, ones the counselors usually grit their teeth over. Just last week a woman announced loudly enough for all to hear in the recovery room, that she thought abortion should be illegal. Amazingly, this was her second abortion within the last few months, having gotten pregnant again within a month of the first abortion. The nurse handled it by talking about all the carnage that went on before abortion was legalized and how fortunate she was to be receiving safe, professional care. However, this young woman continued to insist it was wrong and should be made illegal. Finally the nurse said, 'Well, I guess we won't be seeing you here again, not that you're not welcome.' Later on, another patient who had overheard this exchange thanked the nurse for her remarks." (Clinic Administrator, Alberta)


"Recently, we had a patient who had given a history of being a 'pro-life' activist, but who had decided to have an abortion. She was pleasant to me and our initial discussion was mutually respectful. Later, she told someone on my staff that she thought abortion is murder, that she is a murderer, and that she is murdering her baby. So before doing her procedure, I asked her if she thought abortion is murder - the answer was yes. I asked her if she thought I am a murderer, and if she thought I would be murdering her baby, and she said yes. But murder is a crime, and murderers are executed. Is this a crime? Well, it should be, she said. At that point, she became angry and hostile, and the summary of the conversation was that she regarded me as an abortion-dispensing machine, and how dare I ask her what she thinks. After explaining to her that I do not perform abortions for people who think I am a murderer or people who are angry at me, I declined to provide her with medical care. I do not know whether she found someone else to do her abortion." (Physician, Colorado)


Many anti-choice women are convinced that their need for abortion is unique - not like those "other" women - even though they have abortions for the same sorts of reasons. Anti-choice women often expect special treatment from clinic staff. Some demand an abortion immediately, wanting to skip important preliminaries such as taking a history or waiting for blood test results. Frequently, anti-abortion women will refuse counseling (such women are generally turned away or referred to an outside counselor because counseling at clinics is mandatory). Some women insist on sneaking in the back door and hiding in a room away from other patients. Others refuse to sit in the waiting room with women they call "sluts" and "trash." Or if they do, they get angry when other patients in the waiting room talk or laugh, because it proves to them that women get abortions casually, for "convenience".
As an interesting side note, this is completely parallel to the stories of Christian ministers who end up hiring gay prostitutes.


Most vote machines lose test to hackers

According to an article in SFGate:
State-sanctioned teams of computer hackers were able to break through the security of virtually every model of California's voting machines and change results or take control of some of the systems' electronic functions, according to a University of California study released Friday.

The researchers "were able to bypass physical and software security in every machine they tested,'' said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who authorized the "top to bottom review" of every voting system certified by the state.


True porn clerk stories

This is pure fun (although interesting in its own right for its anthropological content).
Back in February of 2002, Ali Davis began keeping this journal of stories about her experiences working at a video store. For a while, it was a well kept secret how good her journal was. Then she appeared on NPR's "This American Life" and all hell broke loose.

Within days, the link of her journal started circulating around the internet via blogs, emails and chat rooms. It peaked at number two on the Daypop Top 40. Over a million people have come to read this journal so far.
An excerpt:
One of my favorite concepts in anthropology is that of the polite fiction. It's something nobody believes, but we all pretend to because it makes life so much easier. My favorite example was of a Pygmy couple. Pygmy divorce involves quite literally breaking up the home: the couple tears apart their house (it's easy - the houses are made of leaves) and once it's down, the union is dissolved. One anthropologist was watching a long-married couple have a fight. It escalated until the wife threatened to leave, and the husband yelled something along the lines of "Fine!" and there was nothing the wife could do but start tearing down the house. She began tearing the roof off, clearly miserable. The husband looked wretched too, but at this point neither could back down without losing face and by now the whole village was watching.

Finally, the husband called out the Pygmy equivalent of "You're right, honey! The roof is dirty! It'll look much better once we get those leaves washed!" The two of them started carrying leaves down to the river, soon with the help of the whole village, and then washed and rebuilt the whole roof. When the anthropologist later discreetly asked how often one washes the roof, everyone looked at him like he was a complete doofus.

The polite fiction of the porn section is that, while people do generally use porn for the purpose of masturbation, there is no reason to believe that this particular customer will be doing so. He could be using them for his Master's thesis. Hell, he may not get around to watching them at all. We all like to believe that. When it becomes all too clear to everyone involved that said customer did, in fact, not only lube up, watch the tape, stroke himself to orgasm, and then grab the goddamned thing without even taking the basic courtesy of washing his goddamned hands first, we all get uncomfortable.


On the existence of time

Discover Magazine has published an article on physicists who study time. The long and short of it is that time doesn't really exist in the way that we think it does:
No one keeps track of time better than Ferenc Krausz. In his lab at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, he has clocked the shortest time intervals ever observed. Krausz uses ultraviolet laser pulses to track the absurdly brief quantum leaps of electrons within atoms. The events he probes last for about 100 attoseconds, or 100 quintillionths of a second. For a little perspective, 100 attoseconds is to one second as a second is to 300 million years.

But even Krausz works far from the frontier of time. There is a temporal realm called the Planck scale, where even attoseconds drag by like eons. It marks the edge of known physics, a region where distances and intervals are so short that the very concepts of time and space start to break down. Planck time—the smallest unit of time that has any physical meaning—is 10-43 second, less than a trillionth of a trillionth of an attosecond. Beyond that? Tempus incognito. At least for now.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality. If so, then what is time? And why is it so obviously and tyrannically omnipresent in our own experience? “The meaning of time has become terribly problematic in contemporary physics,” says Simon Saunders, a philosopher of physics at the University of Oxford. “The situation is so uncomfortable that by far the best thing to do is declare oneself an agnostic.”


“I recently went to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder,” says [physicist Seth] Lloyd. (NIST is the government lab that houses the atomic clock that standardizes time for the nation.) “I said something like, ‘Your clocks measure time very accurately.’ They told me, ‘Our clocks do not measure time.’ I thought, Wow, that’s very humble of these guys. But they said, ‘No, time is defined to be what our clocks measure.’ Which is true. They define the time standards for the globe: Time is defined by the number of clicks of their clocks.”

Rovelli, the advocate of a timeless universe, says the NIST timekeepers have it right. Moreover, their point of view is consistent with the Wheeler-DeWitt equation. “We never really see time,” he says. “We see only clocks. If you say this object moves, what you really mean is that this object is here when the hand of your clock is here, and so on. We say we measure time with clocks, but we see only the hands of the clocks, not time itself. And the hands of a clock are a physical variable like any other. So in a sense we cheat because what we really observe are physical variables as a function of other physical variables, but we represent that as if everything is evolving in time.

“What happens with the Wheeler-DeWitt equation is that we have to stop playing this game. Instead of introducing this fictitious variable—time, which itself is not observable—we should just describe how the variables are related to one another. The question is, Is time a fundamental property of reality or just the macroscopic appearance of things? I would say it’s only a macroscopic effect. It’s something that emerges only for big things.”
In my online interactions throughout the years I've maintained that I don't believe in time. John Zerzan's essay Time and its Discontents most succinctly describes why:

We have gone along with the substantiation of time so that it seems a fact of nature, a power existing in its own right. The growth of a sense of time--the acceptance of time--is a process of adaptation to an ever more reified world. It is a constructed dimension, the most elemental aspect of culture. Time's inexorable nature provides the ultimate model of domination.

The further we go in time the worse it gets. We inhabit an age of the disintegration of experience, according to Adorno. The pressure of time, like that of its essential progenitor, division of labor, fragments and disperses all before it. Uniformity, equivalence, separation are byproducts of time's harsh force.


Paul Valry (1962) referred to the fall of the species into time as signalling alienation from nature; ``by a sort of abuse, man creates time,'' he wrote. In the timeless epoch before this fall, which constituted the overwhelming majority of our existence as humans, life, as has often been said, had a rhythm but not a progression. It was the state when the soul could ``gather in the whole of its being,'' in Rousseau's words, in the absence of temporal strictures, ``where time is nothing to the soul.'' Activities themselves, usually of a leisurely character, were the points of reference before time and civilization; nature provided the necessary signals, quite independent of ``time''. Humanity must have been conscious of memories and purposes long before any explicit distinctions were drawn among past, present, and future (Fraser, 1988). Furthermore, as the linguist Whorf (1956) estimated, ``preliterate [`primitive'] communities, far from being subrational, may show the human mind functioning on a higher and more complex plane of rationality than among civilized men.''


``No time is entirely present,'' said the Stoic Chrysippus, and meanwhile the concept of time was being further advanced by the underlying Judeo-Christian tenet of a linear, irreversible path between creation and salvation. This essentially historical view of time is the very core of Christianity; all the basic notions of measurable, one-way time can be found in St. Augustine's (fifth- century) writings.


Time's arrow--irrevocable, one-direction-only time--is the monster that has proven itself more terrifying than any physical projectile. Directionless time is not time at all, and Cambel (1993) identifies time directionality as ``a primary characteristic of complex systems.'' The time-reversible behavior of atomic particles is ``generally commuted into behavior of the system that is irreversible,'' concluded Schlegel (1961). If not rooted in the micro world, where does time come from? Where does our time-bound world come from? It is here that we encounter a provocative analogy. The small scale world described by physics, with its mysterious change into the macro world of complex systems, is analogous to the ``primitive'' social world and the origins of division of labor, leading to complex, class-divided society with its apparently irreversible ``progress''.
I understand physics well enough to know that the scientific work in the field of time does not exactly prove Zerzan's position. But in my mind it goes a long ways in making it plausible. Fascinating.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Memetix Report on the State of America

OK, it's time for me to switch gears and present links to a dozen representative articles that reveal the mimetic state of the United States, as of June 2007.

On reality cognition: First, what everybody already knows about SUVs ... it's all about vanity, and the illusion of safety without any of the reality:
In the history of the automotive industry, few things have been quite as unexpected as the rise of the S.U.V. Detroit is a town of engineers, and engineers like to believe that there is some connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits. But the S.U.V. boom was like Apple's bringing back the Macintosh, dressing it up in colorful plastic, and suddenly creating a new market. It made no sense to them. Consumers said they liked four-wheel drive. But the overwhelming majority of consumers don't need four-wheel drive. S.U.V. buyers said they liked the elevated driving position. But when, in focus groups, industry marketers probed further, they heard things that left them rolling their eyes. As Keith Bradsher writes in "High and Mighty"—perhaps the most important book about Detroit since Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed"—what consumers said was "If the vehicle is up high, it's easier to see if something is hiding underneath or lurking behind it. " Bradsher brilliantly captures the mixture of bafflement and contempt that many auto executives feel toward the customers who buy their S.U.V.s. Fred J. Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says, "Sport-utility owners tend to be more like 'I wonder how people view me,' and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that. " According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford's S.U.V. designers took their cues from seeing "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls. " Toyota's top marketing executive in the United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the story of how at a focus group in Los Angeles "an elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills. " One of Ford's senior marketing executives was even blunter: "The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a. m."
Speaking of the illusion of safety: when the EPA discovered asbestos in their Little League fields, the residents of idyllic El Dorado Hills rushed to protect themselves—from reality:
The civic leaders of El Dorado Hills had spent many months trying to stave off [asbestos] tests, scrambling to protect the community not from potentially toxic substances, but from the EPA's potentially toxic information. Taking the lead was Vicki Barber, the superintendent of schools. A stout woman with compressed lips and an unwavering gaze, she recently won an award for being "a person who does not accept the word 'no'...when it comes to what is good for students." After asbestos was found during the construction of a high school soccer field in 2002, Barber questioned a costly epa-mandated cleanup. When a citizen formally asked the epa to test the town's public areas for asbestos in 2003, Barber quickly emerged as the agency's most determined local foe. Before the study was even under way, she began writing to the epa as well as to senators and congressmen, questioning whether the agency had the "legal and scientific authority" to conduct what she called a "science experiment" with "limited benefit to the residents." At least four state legislators and one congressman responded by putting pressure on the epa, which in turn agreed not to declare El Dorado Hills a Superfund site, regardless of what it might find there.
And while we're on the subject of environmental disconnects: Massacres and paramilitary land seizures are behind the "Biofuel Revolution":
Armed groups in Colombia are driving peasants off their land to make way for plantations of palm oil, a biofuel that is being promoted as an environmentally friendly source of energy.
Oh shoot, while we're here, we might as well deal with the externalization of environmental costs to developing nations:
It was once a gently flowing river, where fishermen cast their nets, sea birds came to feed and natural beauty left visitors spellbound. Villagers collected water for their simple homes and rice paddies thrived on its irrigation channels. Today, the Citarum is a river in crisis, choked by the domestic waste of nine million people and thick with the cast-off from hundreds of factories.
See the picture above. That's a river, not solid ground! A related article: Polymers Are Forever. Don't even get me started on China and Walmart.

On the illusion of anonymity: Kevin Flaherty reports on the ugly truth about online anonymity:
So, you want to be anonymous in a world that was thought up by the U.S. Department of Defense? Most computer users don’t have what it takes, in terms of technical skills, or discipline, to pull it off. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s absolutely true.


As you might already know, I studied information warfare in college and I did several years of time in corporate IT environments. I knew about the types of surveillance and control that are possible at the client, server and network levels. I looked at the challenge as all IT people look at all IT related challenges: Assume the absolute worst. I went even further with this. I made irrationally negative assumptions. I assumed that everything I did online was compromised. I assumed the worst tinfoil nightmares about commercial operating systems. I assumed that my ISP was a subsidiary of the NSA, etc.

Got the idea?
As if Kevin were prescient, EFF released unredacted court documents related to the ATT/NSA intercept case. Kevin summarizes:
A company called Narus has developed the NarusInsight Intercept Suite: a purpose built network surveillance system that is capable of analyzing (in real time) ALL of the data passing through the largest network nodes in existence. This system is capable of applying sophisticated targeting rules to the traffic, as well as recording entire, individual sessions for later analysis.
This leads us to our next topic...

On the snarling police state: Man faces seven years in prison for videotaping traffic stop; woman faced jail time for “staring” at a police dog.

On appreciation of beauty: The Washington Post arranged to have one of the best classical musicians in the world play some of the most difficult and beautiful music in history on a three million dollar Stradivarius, anonymously in a DC Metro station. And almost nobody noticed, except... every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

On terrorism and security: The head of Arkansas GOP openly states that we need more ‘attacks on American soil’ so people will better appreciate GW Bush. Read that again...


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Psyche as a Dynamical System

In my last post I presented a physical interpretation of the concept of spirit, making use of the idea of nonlinear dynamical systems and essentially equating the emergent behavior of a (sub)system with a personality (egregore), a practical implication being that one could interact with such a personality if one knew how. A more detailed account would equate a personality or aspect of spirit with an attractor of the system, that is (roughly speaking) a set of states towards which the system evolves and stays.

One could also apply this approach to the concept of psyche, considering the personality (or personalities) of an individual human being, since the human organism is nothing if not (at least) a complex dynamical system. In fact, Chris King makes this suggestion in great detail, describing a possible physical basis for consciousness. In many ways this article is one that I would have liked to author, but with King's breadth and depth of knowledge he makes a far more competent case than I could.

To be clear about my position on positivist/reductionist materialism: I am not saying that human beings are simply meaningless bits of dust (a relatively common position in 21st Century and a fundamental subtext of much current culture, as I remark in my previous post). In fact, I take somewhat the opposite viewpoint: everything is conscious and meaningful. King obliquely hints at this perspective by citing a work by David Chalmers

Although a remarkable number of phenomena have turned out to be explicable wholly in terms of entities simpler than themselves, this is not universal. In physics, it occasionally happens that an entity has to be taken as fundamental. Fundamental entities are not explained in terms of anything simpler. Instead, one takes them as basic, and gives a theory of how they relate to everything else in the world. For example, in the nineteenth century it turned out that electromagnetic processes could not be explained in terms of the wholly mechanical processes that previous physical theories appealed to, so Maxwell and others introduced electromagnetic charge and electromagnetic forces as new fundamental components of a physical theory. To explain electromagnetism, the ontology of physics had to be expanded. New basic properties and basic laws were needed to give a satisfactory account of the phenomena.

Other features that physical theory takes as fundamental include mass and space-time. No attempt is made to explain these features in terms of anything simpler. But this does not rule out the possibility of a theory of mass or of space-time. There is an intricate theory of how these features interrelate, and of the basic laws they enter into. These basic principles are used to explain many familiar phenomena concerning mass, space, and time at a higher level.

I suggest that a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental. We know that a theory of consciousness requires the addition of something fundamental to our ontology, as everything in physical theory is compatible with the absence of consciousness. We might add some entirely new nonphysical feature, from which experience can be derived, but it is hard to see what such a feature would be like. More likely, we will take experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time. If we take experience as fundamental, then we can go about the business of constructing a theory of experience.
Stephen Lehar makes the point more explicitly:
If we accept the materialist view that mind is a physical process taking place in the physical mechanism of the brain, and since we know that mind is conscious, then that already is direct and incontrovertible evidence that a physical process taking place in a physical mechanism can under certain conditions be conscious. Now it it true that the brain is a very special kind of mechanism. But what makes the brain so special is not its substance, for it is made of the ordinary substance of matter and energy. What sets the brain apart from normal matter is its complex organization. The most likely explanation therefore is that what makes our consciousness special is not its substance, but its complex organization. The fundamental “stuff” of which our consciousness is composed, i.e. the basic qualia of color and pain, sadness and joy, are apparently common with the qualia of children, as far back as I can remember, although I also remember a less complex organization of my experiences as a child. It is also likely that animals have some kind of conscious qualia on logical grounds, because the information of their perceptual experience cannot exist without some kind of carrier to express that information in the physical brain. Whether the subjective qualia of different species, or even different individuals of our own species, are necessarily the same as ours experientially, is a question that is difficult or maybe impossible in principle to answer definitively. But the simplest, most parsimonious explanation is that our own conscious qualia evolved from those of our animal ancestors, and differ from those earlier forms more in its level of complex organization rather than in its fundamental nature.

The natural reluctance that we all feel to extending consciousness to our animal ancestors, and even more so to plants, or to inanimate matter, is a stubborn legacy of our anthropocentric past. But the history of scientific discovery has been characterized by a regular progression of anthrodecentralization, demoting humans from the central position in the universe under the personal supervision of God, to lost creatures on the surface of a tiny blip of matter orbiting a very unremarkable star, among countless billions of stars in an unremarkable galaxy amongst countless billions of other galaxies as far as the telescopic eye can see. Modern biology has now discovered that there is no vital force in living things, but only a complex organization of the ordinary matter of the universe, following the ordinary laws of that universe. There is no reason on earth why consciousness should not also be considered to be a manifestation of the ordinary matter of the universe following the ordinary laws of that universe, although expressed in a complex organization in the case of the human brain. A claim to the contrary would necessarily fall under the category of an extraordinary claim, which, as Carl Sagan pointed out, would require extraordinary evidence for it to be accepted by reasonable men.
Nevertheless, I believe it is valuable to model consciousness from a physical perspective, both because it removes the "woo-woo" factor from discussions about consciousness, and because it actually clarifies certain points, for example the value of meditation. Let me explain further.

If you are sufficient self-aware of your own mental processes (either by formal meditation or simply by being an astute observer) you will eventually come to the realization that you are not one personality. There are in fact multiple yous inhabiting the same body, and each becomes active under different circumstances and stimuli. This phenomenon is a more complex version of multistability, where a system alternates between multiple semi-stable states (or, informally, partial attractors). A characteristic of a psychologically healthy individual is an ability to move flexibly among multiple semi-stable states under appropriate stimuli, so multistability of personality is in fact normal and necessary. The critical issue ultimately boils down to the topology of the attractor set.

For example, certain pathologies can arise. The schizophrenic will have a highly chaotic consciousness, with little apparent organization or system stability. Interestingly, the dissociative identity disorder (which is often incorrectly associated with schizophrenia) apparently involves the opposite problem, in that consciousness is fragmented into multiple states that are rigidly isolated. Mood disorders and less severe cognitive disorders have a more normal attractor topology, but they might be characterized by having too few semi-stable states, with consequent maladaption to environmental conditions (e.g. obsessive-compulsive disorders and clinical depression), or too numerous semi-stable states with insufficient isolation between them (e.g. bipolar disorders).

If you happen to be a garden-variety neurotic of the type that is common in Western civilization, i.e. that your consciousness follows a dynamical system that is reasonably normal in terms of attractor topology, then you might still find it beneficial to have more control points in your consciousness, with checks on the cascade from one semi-stable point to another. That is, you may wish to have more control over the transitions between your individual personalities, (assuming of course that you have such a you), having more flexible responses to environmental stimuli or fewer tendencies to react maladaptively to uncomfortable or threatening situations. You may even wish to spawn new semi-stable states that offer perspectives that are distinct from existing ones. In short, you may seek to achieve a "meta" personality that adaptively integrates all existing personalities.

One way to do this is to build a new personality that is trained to monitor other internal states. This is essentially what one learns to do in some forms of meditation: observe the mind and its workings. By collecting data on subsystems, a portion of your mind is trained to maintain a coherent ("still") observational state.

Buddhists will suggest that the aim of meditation is to achieve a state of emptiness or apprehend the "ground-of-being". I think it bears mentioning that the "void" of the physical universe is somewhat less than fully empty, as Chris King points out:

The theories describing force fields such as electromagnetism through the interaction of wave-particles are the most succinct theories ever invented by the human mind. Richard Feynman and others discovered the field is generated by uncertainty itself through particles propagated by a rule based on wave spreading. These particles are called virtual because they have no net positive energy and appear and disappear entirely within the window of quantum uncertainty, so we never see them except as expressed in the force itself. This seething tumult of virtual particles exactly produces the familiar effects of the electromagnetic field and other fields as well... Even in the vacuum, where we think there is nothing at all, there is actually a sea of all possible particles being created and destroyed by the rules of uncertainty.
Repeating Chalmer's proposition, that "a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental", it seems that the void is merely raw experience itself, and that the emptiness towards which meditation strives is a kind of root or unitary collective consciousness.

It's hard to know what Chalmers, King, or Lehar might think of equating their concept of fundamental experience with a super-collective consciousness or anything like a deity. Indeed, Buddhists themselves would caution against over-interpreting the ground-of-being or imputing features that are anything like our own normal human consciousness. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to talk about raw undifferentiated consciousness (whatever features it has) as a fundamental aspect of reality. The practical significance is that the state-coherence developed by meditation practice approximates a more direct and fundamental form of experience, in a physically interpretable manner. In addition, this state-coherence can stabilize a maladaptive system by altering the topology of the attractor space.

In conclusion, I believe that meditation is a physical process that produces empirically verifiable alterations in consciousness that have practical implications in the normal life of a human. In addition, there is a there there: consciousness is something that is real, and worthy of a dignity and sophistication that it is afforded less and less this century.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Science, Fundamentalism, and Faith

Recently perusing the comments in a blog I read, I came across the following statement:
Spirit stuff, by definition, cannot exist. It is usually defined as that which cannot be seen, felt, touched, heard, tasted or detected by any instrument now or in the future.
This definition doesn't quite match up with the numerous dictionary definitions of the word spirit, which range from "the principle of conscious life" through "incorporeal being". However, it pervades much modern thought, especially a strain that I call scientific fundamentalism. For example, an L.A. Times book review of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (by Natalie Angie) states the following:
Her first chapters cover familiar, if important, ground: The foundation of science is evidence; we can't always predict where pure research will lead, so we need to support the scientific dreamers; math is "unreasonably effective" at making sense of nature. And science is our most powerful weapon against fear and superstition — our "candle in the dark," as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it.
In and of itself, I mostly agree with the statement. A fundamental requirement for accepting a proposition or a theory should be evidence. However, scientific fundamentalism (which The Canon appears to champion) places severe, and in my view unnecessary restrictions on what constitutes evidence. Furthermore, it excludes all but hierarchical modes of knowledge and learning, therefore excluding much of what is and can be experienced in the phenomenological world.

Defining spirit to be "that which cannot exist" and then following it up with the conclusion that spirit does not exist exemplifies circular reasoning, is operationally useless, and serves only a Cartesian dualism. A more useful definition, one that may be closer to the dictionary definitions listed above, is the following: a spiritual phenomenon is that which is of a higher order than can be subjected to investigation by repeated experiment. This includes in situ human emotion, friendship, intuition, consciousness, meaning in general, as well as the emergent properties of large-scale complex systems; that is, phenomena that can be experienced but not studied.

Complex systems, in particular, create difficulties because they are by definition nonlinear and therefore impossible to characterize in any finite sample. I submit that they are ultimately easier to understand in terms of personalities, i.e. angels and egregores, than in terms of stochastic differential equations. I believe that pre-literate cultures understood this; far from being"superstitious", they possessed modes of knowing that were able to comprehend natural processes by relating to them, rather than studying them, in much the same way that we come to know another individual by relationship rather than cold, impersonal observation. There is evidence that that pre-literate knowledge systems, obtained through deep intimacy with their subject matter by relational means, enabled their stewards to live sustainably for aeons in a way that we are unable to do in a short 500 year period.

Bear in mind that a truth about pre-literate peoples lies somewhere on a continuum between two propositions: either they have lived at the harsh boundary between survival and extinction, in which case systems of knowledge that confer a competitive edge would be favored over those that do not; or they have been fortunate to live a life of relative ease that facilitates the development of unnecessarily ornate and colorful belief systems that have no place in the grim modern world. The latter proposition negates a commonly held assumption that our current science and technology is an unambiguous benefit to collective humanity. In either case, one has to consider the possibility that scientific fundamentalism is severely limited in terms of its ability to facilitate human happiness and long-term survival in a complex biosphere.

The blog commenter I quoted at the beginning of this article makes another assertion, "Science is really a conversation with nature." This is a mis-characerization of the nature of scientific inquiry, especially in certain biological sciences such as toxicology. From the perspective of "Nature" (a reification that I'll accept in this posting), science is less a conversation than an interrogation bordering on torture. See, for example, the critiques of Carolyn Merchant and William Kotke.

The LA Times book review casually mentions a glaring omission in The Canon:
Oddly, though, [the author] barely mentions the two most profound and beautiful ideas physics has ever cooked up — relativity and quantum theory — even though they underlie it all.
Yes, and why is that? Why is there no mention of the cracks in the foundation of scientifc fundamentalism, the apparent fact that matter itself ultimately consists of puffs of probability floating in a curved and twisting void? Could it be that these topics spawn too many questions that cannot comfortably be answered without equivocating basic assumptions about modern reality? Might it risk dispersing the collective attention away from focus on a materialistic narrative that serves only a narrow range of interests?

We are at an inflection point in our collective history where current modes of apprehending the natural world no longer serve us. The existing paradigm of hierarchical knowledge obtained at knife-point no longer has practical application in a self-reinforcing system of domination, wherein honest speakers of truth (whether or not they be conventional scientists) have no voice against powers that would use knowledge only to further entrench systems of hierarchy and empire at the expense of a sustainable biosphere. We need to accept modes of knowing and learning that acknowledge relationship with rather than domination over Nature.

To that end, I will now define faith, not as the belief in a proposition without evidence, but rather an openness and willingness to engage in relationship with the unknown, with nature, and with larger intelligences.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Good, Evil, and Karma: Manifolds and Systems

Tim Boucher, ever eager to open up a philosophical can of worms, addresses the age-old liberal conundrum, what to do about tolerating evil. Reflecting on a criticism of megachurch Christianity, Tim writes:
Isn’t this person saying that in order for a religion to be moral, then they must actively tolerate evil itself? I know that’s not what this guy is probably trying to say, but I think it’s only a short hop into that territory. Even though I’m only partly in favor of the Spiral Dynamics model championed by Ken Wilber and others, the comments by this person seem to reflect a very typical “green meme” attitude wherein nothing is better than anything else; everything is strictly egalitarian; and hierarchy is bad.


One of the only ways out of this apparent thought trap seems to be to recognize the inherent right of people everywhere not to tolerate what they think of as being bad or evil. If you think this church is evil, and if this church thinks somebody else is evil, then - hey - that’s okay. No one is really discredited in the process. We’re just recognizing that groups and individuals have likes and dislikes. Why should we force people to tolerate evil?
I've commented exensively in his thread, but I want to collect my thoughts into a coherent essay, because there are some important distinctions to be made.

First off, let's just get it out of the way up front: there is no Good or Evil. The fact is that the universe is terrifyingly amoral.

Now, before you accuse me of moral relativism, of advocating a green-meme free-for-all, hear me out. At this point it is useful to borrow from manifold theory and use the idea of a manifold as a metaphor or analogy for the way morality operates in our universe.
A manifold is an abstract mathematical space in which every point has a neighborhood which resembles Euclidean space, but in which the global structure may be more complicated.
A technical definition is beyond the scope here, but a manifold is essentially a complex "space" with a coherent structure that can be patched together by gluing together smaller linear spaces, called atlases. Any point in a manifold space has a neighborhood that is locally linear and appears to have clear axes and directions, even if the global space does not. Some manifolds are orientable in the sense that concepts of direction apply globally (e.g. a circle is a one-dimensional manifold that has two definite directions, clockwise and and its opposing direction, counterclockwise). But not all manifolds are orientable. The Moebius strip is an example of one that is not.

With this bit of mathematical theory in hand, we can now talk about moral compass and axes of good and evil. I submit that in any context that applies to a given being or group of beings at a particular moment in time, there is a moral atlas that provides a local meaning to the concepts of good and evil. That is, there is a more-or-less clear "good" direction and a clear "evil" direction, discernable without intellectualizing and ultimately getting twisted into a logical pretzel. In context, there are right and wrong actions. Wrong actions are those that are harmful, in some sense that is clear in context, while right actions are those that are beneficial, also in some sense that is clear in context. However, problems arise when you try to patch together these local moral atlases into some absolute moral system: you just can’t, because different entities will always have different concerns, often competing ones. To the primitive human, a lion might be "evil" because it destroys, but to the lion, a human is a good source of protein.

Now, allow me to repeat: in a given situation with a given individual and/or group of individuals, there is, most of the time, a clear axis of “good” and “evil” that is defined by the context and concerns of the person(s) involved, but that there is no such global/absolute axis that applies universally to all people and situations. This is a fine distinction.

This view brings up another facet of (let us call it) moral calculus. You can focus on a very narrow context which appears to have a clear “right” answer, but if you follow the time-evolution out far enough along that axis, it turns out to be the clear “wrong” answer. Example: it is clearly in the economic interests of Community X to clear-cut the nearby forest, because doing so will provide resources and jobs the people of X obviously need. It’s to everybody’s benefit, except of course the owls, but who cares about them? Unfortunately, cutting down the forest externalizes various costs to the future and ultimately destroys the physical environment upon which Community X depends. So (as suggested by Tim Boucher commenter Prunes), the moral manifold of the universe really is something more like a Moebius strip, i.e., non-orientable.

As they say, karma is a bitch, and it is so because actions have a way of coming back to you from some direction you may not have forseen. We can talk about karma in the context of nonlinear dynamical systems, more popularly known as chaos theory. Dynamical systems are usually defined with respect to manifolds, so we are still on-topic. Ecologies are the best examples of such sytems, and an essential feature of an ecology is the feedback loop, where aspects of a system feed back on themselves, thereby either regulating behavior (negative feedback) or cascading to a snowball effect (positive feedback). In our moral model of the universe, actions feed other actions, and the consequences return via feedback. One can view feedback as a physical manifestation of karma. You need not believe anything metaphysical; in very real terms, what you do returns to you or your children. In our example, the children of Community X will reap the consequences of clear-cutting the nearby forest.

Now, I’m not pretending that mathematical analogies are for everybody, and certainly are not Reality, but they do help me. In fact, I do believe in a “metaphysical” portion of the universe, that is to say, one not directly measurable by the senses or by equipment calibrated to “ordinary” matter and energy. But even within the so-called physical universe there are time scales and complexity scales beyond the ability of the human mind to contemplate, and these too also take on the flavor of the metaphysical. Somewhere at the juncture of the nonordinary manifestations of energy, geological timescales, and planetary complexities, lie the consequences of feedback from our own present actions. This provides a reasonable, spiritually-neutral definition of karma appropriate to 21st century linguistic needs. If you acknowledge that we are living in a universal ecology, you cannot help but conclude the existence of karma, as manifested in system feedback. In addition, a local moral coordinate system can be discerned by considering the lines along which actions evolve in time and flower into consequences, whether or not you consider the agency of such consequences to be metaphysical.

A common misperception (at least here in the West) is to view karma as an equivalent to Yahweh's divine retribution, and therefore to ignore it entirely (since pretty much nobody outside the megachurch crowd pays attention to Yahweh anymore). In my observations, it seems that karma is more a feature of the mundane universe, and nonlinear dynamics, if viewed from the right perspective, gives a plausible model for how it works.

It is ultimately impossible to know the true long-term consequences of even the smallest action. This principle is captured in the butterfly effect, well known in chaos-theory, by which an infinitesimally small action can have enormous consequences. It is therefore fruitless to perseverate on Good and Evil in the global sense. An obsession with absolute morality can be a supreme distraction, allowing the mind to twist itself into logical pretzels that lead nowhere. It often enables inaction when action is required, and sometimes even enables action when inaction is necessary. I find it more useful to think about Duty, which I define in this context as an injunction to follow the "good" axis in a local moral coordinate system. If you recognize and accept the fact that the universe itself respects no absolute axis of Good and Evil, it becomes easier to recognize the local landscape and allow yourself to be led by a moral compass that is calibrated to your context. It becomes easier to do your own Duty, and also to allow others to do theirs even if it may conflict with your own.

The analogy of dynamical systems in the context of metaphysics is not exactly new, and appears in certain writings by the Chaos magick proponents and adherents. But to echo a diatribe given by Zac in his excellent new systems-inspired series, it appears to me that karma is not adequately addressed in that corner of the occult world. If you’re going to work the chaos theory angle, it’s foolish to ignore the most salient feature of nonlinear dynamics, which is the feedback loop. I'm a big proponent of using the fine-scale unpredictability of the universe to your own advantage, leveraging energies as needed to solve the problems of your community. But it is moronic not to factor in long-term consequences. Sustainability, people.

Bottom line: don’t shit in your own well. Unless of course you like the taste.


Friday, July 14, 2006

Thematically-essential rape-and-torture

From a Guardian article, "A study in sexual violence":
Britain is the only country in the EU - as far as I know - in which the state still censors films. At the same time, the issue [of sexual violence] is a real one, apparent to anybody whose cinemagoing extends beyond Harry Potter and cartoons. Sexualised violence has become a staple element of Hollywood entertainments and art cinema alike over the past few years, and a new expression - "extreme cinema" - has been coined to describe the films that feature it.


Having conquered and wrung dry the former taboos of onscreen sex and violence, filmmakers are now encouraged to conflate the two. Irréversible and Baise-Moi immediately spring to mind; but easily half the reviews I read of low-budget art films by new filmmakers refer, en passant, to "the gruelling but thematically-essential rape-and-torture scene". Cannes, in particular, seems to seek out such films. Now, are these films selected because festival programmers know there's an audience for them? Or are filmmakers, festivals and distributors creating an audience for increasing levels of sexual violence, by making and screening these films?


From my own experience, I think filmmakers are often encouraged, by their financiers, to include these things. Once, the studios or foreign sales agents were happy with a glimpse of a woman's breasts. Now that nudity is old hat and porn ubiquitous, directors are being jostled to provide something "a bit harder". In 2001, while we were editing Revengers Tragedy, the producers and I received a request from the Film Council to "make the rape scene more violent and explicit". [...] the Film Council may have reckoned a more explicit rape might get us into Cannes, or pick up a few more foreign sales. In other words, this was a pragmatic rape, a money thing.


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Fog of War

No doubt, this is old news to you by now:
A former U.S. Army soldier was charged yesterday with the rape and murder of a young Iraqi woman and the slayings of three of her family members in their home south of Baghdad in March, federal prosecutors said.
The Cunning Realist has an observation with a subtle point hidden within:
The idiots who continue to insist that "these things happen during war" have stumbled unwittingly onto a partial truth. Yes, this is part of every war, and that's exactly why preemptive wars carry a unique risk. When the inevitable atrocities occur, they can be just as damaging to the aggressor as defeat on the battlefield---particularly for a nation that defines itself by moral exceptionalism.
In response to atrocity, this meme -- "these things happen during war" -- is being promoted by the apologists of the war in Iraq, more-or-less the same people who promoted the war before it turned into the quagmire and disaster it is today. But they would have you forget their eagerness to start the war in the first place.

If "these things happen during war", that makes the aggressor nation (us) no less culpable.


Social network of 911

Cooperative Research is a good resource for finding organized timelines for various important current events topics (e.g. Katrina, 911). In particular, the timelines are available in XML and easily parsed.

I was able to extract the timeline for 911 and, for each event in the timeline, the players involved in the event. Using the same network tools I've been using the other blog postings I've done recently, I have plotted the social network of the major entities involved.

For each picture, you can get a larger version by clicking on it. Note that a link means only that the two entities were involved in the same event(s), not that they necessarily acted together. Edge color represents the number of separate events in which the attached nodes were both involved, and vertex color represents the closeness score (for the first plot), the betweenness score (for plots 2 & 3) or the number of links (plots 4-6) for the entity.

Entities with top 75 closeness scores:

Entities with top 50 betweenness scores:

Entities with top 100 betweenness scores:

Entities with > 750 links:

Entities with > 500 links:

Entities with > 250 links:


Blog mining

Study this!

Blogs Study May Provide Credible Information:
ARLINGTON, Va., June 29, 2006 – The Air Force Office of Scientific Research recently began funding a new research area that includes a study of blogs. Blog research may provide information analysts and warfighters with invaluable help in fighting the war on terrorism.

Dr. Brian E. Ulicny, senior scientist, and Dr. Mieczyslaw M. Kokar, president, Versatile Information Systems Inc., Framingham, Mass., will receive approximately $450,000 in funding for the 3-year project entitled “Automated Ontologically-Based Link Analysis of International Web Logs for the Timely Discovery of Relevant and Credible Information.”

“It can be challenging for information analysts to tell what’s important in blogs unless you analyze patterns,” Ulicny said.
See also this article from a few months ago, CIA mines 'rich' content from blogs:
President Bush and U.S. policy-makers are receiving more intelligence from open sources such as Internet blogs and foreign newspapers than they previously did, senior intelligence officials said.
Finally, cross-reference my article on social networks.



Breasts are apparently for men's titillation and enjoyment, not for feeding babies:

Breast-Feeding Moms Protest Victoria's Secret
RACINE, Wis. -- A woman who said she was offended when Victoria's Secret staff asked her to nurse her baby in an employee restroom organized a nursing protest in front of the store as part of a national nurse-in.

Cook said she was shopping at the store with a friend last week when she asked to use a dressing room to nurse her daughter. When she was told no room was available, she offered to sit in the rear of the dressing room hallway but was told that was unacceptable, she said.


"They opened up their employee restroom, which is disgusting," she said. "I said, 'No, I don't eat in the bathroom and my daughter doesn't eat in the bathroom."'


A spokesman for Limited Brands Inc., the Columbus-based parent company of Victoria's Secret, said the company has a long-standing policy that allows mothers to nurse in their stores.

"In this incidence it was not adhered to. We regret that and apologize for that," said spokesman Anthony Hebron.


"It's kind of ironic that Victoria's Secret, which plasters breasts everywhere, is offended at seeing breasts used for their intended purpose," said Anna Mauser-Martinez, who organized [a] nurse-in.

A year ago, lawmakers legalized breast-feeding in public places in Ohio.

In Wisconsin, State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, introduced a bill last year that would have allowed women to breast-feed in any public or private place where they were authorized to be, but the bill died in committee in May.