Saturday, June 13, 2009

Blue October Videos

This embedded player has a 50 song playlist, including all 24 songs from the live album, Argue with a Tree. This is my current favorite band for the mixture of heart, melody, poetry, and just plain great music.


Ken Wilber Guest Blog: Introducing the AQAL Cube (by Lexi Neale)

As a cosmological model, I placed the subjectives on the left face, objectives on the right, singulars ahead, plurals behind, possessives below and non-possessives above. Each of the eight corners of the cube is where three faces come together as a triplet, which locates that particular personal pronoun, shown in Figure 9.

There are eight personal pronouns per person, first, second and third, so each person has its own cube of personal pronouns, as in Figure 10.

These three cubes categorize the main 3 x 8 = 24 personal pronouns in languages throughout the world. The first person cube is the individual self in its subjective relationship with the Kosmos. The second person cube is the individual self in its personal objective relationship with the Kosmos. The third person cube is the most objective view of the individual self in its impersonal objective relationship with the Kosmos.

* * * * *

Wow, a whole new level of (unnecessary?) complexity for the AQAL model, three dimensions. As far as the first person cube is concerned, I think this is eminently useful - at least for me and my efforts to explicate an integral psychology in practice and not just theory. The second perosn cube also offers some unique perspective taking.

Here are a couple of sections of the post - I highly recommend checking out the whole thing.
Guest Blog: Introducing the AQAL Cube (by Lexi Neale)

Introducing The AQAL Cube Perspectives:
Transcending and including the AQAL Square
Lexi Neale


“Introducing The AQAL Cube” addresses persisting “flat-land” and reductionism issues with Ken Wilber’s AQAL Square, where “two dimensional” interpretations of “three dimensional” processes have left us with many anomalies that may possibly be corrected by the AQAL Cube. First, the AQAL Cube differentiates two domains of Consciousness: The Empirical domain of our gross, mortal being with its 4 Quadrants below; and the Intuitive domain of our subtle, non-mortal being, which inhabits the Empirical domain, with its 4 Quadrants above. Second, each of the three persons is delegated with its own AQAL Cube of eight personal pronoun-perspectives, totaling 3 x 8 = 24. The resulting myriad of binary-perspective lattices generated by the all-person AQAL Cubes, of which the classic Wilber-Combs lattice is but one, is the tip of a vast “ice-cube” of permutations of Kosmic Address, and as such is a potential model for the Human Consciousness Project.


This is a difficult paper, because it calls for some key reforms to the AQAL Model. Most of us have no problem changing a bad thing for a good thing, but few would change a good thing for a better thing. Good as the existing AQAL Model is, there may be little need to change it. But like any other evolving entity, Integral Theory will itself periodically break out of outmoded forms into new and liberating dimensions.

In this paper I attempt to present an argument that Ken Wilber’s 4 Quadrant Model, which I here refer to as “The AQAL Square”, can be transcended and included by differentiating an additional dimension of four additional quadrants, as an 8 Quadrant Model, which I here refer to as “The AQAL Cube”. I propose the additional dimension that the AQAL Square fails to adequately differentiate is nevertheless differentiated cross-culturally by the possessive and non-possessive personal pronouns, as our material and non-material being respectively. I present the case that all our pronoun-perspectives, as aspects of our conscious awareness, can and should be integrated into the AQAL Model as the AQAL Cube. In so doing, the AQAL Cube may be able to offer many pragmatic advantages over the AQAL Square. For example, the AQAL Cube would be able to delegate State Stages and Structure Stages their own quadrants, by which to map more accurately their vastly different perspectives, rather than be lines in the same quadrant of the AQAL Square. In other words, my intention in presenting the AQAL Cube is to not detract from what is offered by the AQAL Square, but rather to add to its territory another dimension that has not yet been differentiated by the AQAL Square.

Expanding the AQAL domain from Square to Cube may also entail expanding existing definitions, and in the course of this paper I will make every effort to clarify how and why an existing definition could be expanded to embrace the new territory being described. I will also try to preserve existing definitions. For example, the two AQAL Squares of the AQAL Cube will not be given “upper” and “lower” designations, because in AQAL Theory these apply to the quadrants of any AQAL Square. The two AQAL Squares of the AQAL Cube I will henceforth refer to as “below” and “above”; our possessive or material being below, and our non-possessive or non-material being above; or consciousness structures below, and the identity states inhabiting those structures above; or Empirical Consciousness quadrants below and Intuitive Consciousness quadrants above. These differentiations will be further clarified through the course of the paper.

The two central issues to be dealt with here, in the raising of the AQAL Square to AQAL Cube, inevitably have to do with reductionism and “flat-land” in the AQAL Square. First, I attempt to differentiate our gross “Being” from our subtle “Knowing”, or What we are from Who we are. The problem here is that our material Being is empirically self-evident, whereas our non-material Knowing is self-intuitive. In my developing the AQAL Cube model I used my own phenomenological experience to differentiate what I am from who I am. I therefore invite anyone to investigate this approach, especially in Second and Third Tier awareness where the differentiation becomes more and more apparent in both Upper Left quadrants (Empirical and Intuitive). I will go further into the Three Tiers later. I also observed that the Self as identity States is of a different order of consciousness from the Self-sense as cognitive Structures and intelligences, for which purpose I introduce the hypothesis that our awareness operates in two Domains of Consciousness – the Gross Domain of the Empirical Consciousness with its Structures, and the Subtle Domain of the Intuitive Consciousness with its identity States.

The second issue is that of differentiating the three persons as three octaves of personal pronoun perspectives, where each person has its own Cube of eight perspectives. For example, the Self “I” is, by definition, a first person perspective. The first person Cube identifies eight categories of Self-perspectives. I propose that the first person Cube not only differentiates our Self system as identities that occupy corresponding structures, but that those identities and structures can be experientially differentiated further as having objective and subjective perspectives in individual and collective contexts. And translating our first person Cube experiences to the third person Cube, we can now study and analyze our first-person experiences from eight perspectives as the eight zones of Integral Methodological Pluralism. In other words, Wilber’s AQAL Eight Zones will be shown to satisfy most of the third person AQAL Cube Model, and that reductionism in this area of Integral Theory exists in the absence of the first and second person Cubes.

The third and final issue to be covered here is how the AQAL Cube can serve as a means of mapping the territory itself. This addresses the integral calculus introduced by Wilber in Integral Spirituality (2006), expanding its scope to include the AQAL Cubes through the three or more persons to arrive at a more specific Kosmic address for any Kosmic event (phenomenon) or for the observer of that event. In that regard I attempt to show how the classic Wilber-Combs lattice, as a binary-perspective matrix, is merely one of a myriad of such lattices generated by the first, second and third person Cubes. In this multiplex of binary-perspective lattices we each establish our own unique configuration of perspectives, in the same way that we are a unique binary recombination of the human genome. For this reason, I propose that the AQAL Cube’s potential for binary-perspective permutations makes it a candidate for modeling the Human Consciousness Project, which was first mentioned by Wilber in his Theory Of Consciousness (1997), in developing a complete experiential map of human awareness. This will also be discussed later.

The scope of this paper, in elevating the AQAL Model from Square to Cube, is so great that space allows for only a superficial treatment of the issues raised here; but I do hope to explore each of them individually, and in academic depth, in future papers. All I am attempting to do in this paper is to define a broader arena for existing research; to point out an extra space, a cubicle if you will, an expandable modular closet for three or more persons, where everything can become more organized. Hats need no longer be hung on the shoe rack and socks need no longer be stuffed in the same drawer as underwear. In this regard, we begin with the mythic task of separating Earth from Sky – differentiating our gross from our subtle being.

* * * * *

Defining The AQAL Cube Perspectives Through The Three Persons

I now briefly review all 24 personal pronoun perspectives of the three persons. Each one occupies its own quadrant, each quadrant going through four representative levels of the Spectrum Of Consciousness using Wilber’s color code of Red, Orange, Blue-as-Turquoise and Violet. (As a note in the interest of not alienating the scientific and artistic communities from Integral Theory any more than necessary, I suggest that the Integral spectrum be realigned with the Newtonian spectrum, where infra red becomes black, magenta becomes shades of brown through to red, amber becomes orange, orange becomes yellow, and turquoise becomes blue).

1. Proximate Self (Intuitive “I”)
Core Intuitive Self-awareness witnessing through “color” levels of the Spectrum as levels of assumed identity States. Some Lines of the Self-system involved here are self-identity and spiritual. Levels of Intuitive identity States correspond to levels of Empirical Structures they identify with and inhabit during incarnation. The Proximate Self-identity “holds to” its level of identification on the Spectrum with a focus of intent called “Attention” (meaning “holding to”). Different levels demand different degrees of intent, or tenacity, which is greatest in Red as totally fused with Empirical Structures, and diminishing towards Violet in surrendering, or dis-identifying with, corresponding Structures. This relaxing hold of the Attention through the Spectrum gives the Proximate Self increasing fluidity to relocate itself according to its intent. I propose the representative Levels of Proximate Self identity as State Stages are: Red - Id as fused Fascination; Orange - Ego as First Attention; Turquoise – Soul as Second Attention; Violet – Intuitive Witness as Third Attention.

2. Empirical Self (Empirical “I”)
Core Empirical Self-awareness, as our material or incarnate identity, formed by experiences as consciousness Structures dispersed through various Lines and Levels of intelligence. Some Lines of the Self-system involved here are: cognitive, affective, psychosexual, needs, aesthetic. Experiential reality from the perspective of consciousness Structures is based on Levels of interpretation of experiences in various categories of processing, including cerebral - hence Lines of intelligence. Proximate Self-identification with these Structures is fused through green. The resulting Empirical identity, where the Empirical Self has its own material sense of identity, disintegrates on physical death. In Structure pathologies this is the home of the Proximate “I” as a compartmentalized or split-off Empirical Self-sense. Representative Levels of Empirical Self identity as experiential Structure Stages are: Red – feeling-sensing; Orange – rationalizing; Turquoise – visioning; Violet – intuiting.

3. Inter-Proximate Self (Intuitive “We”)
Even before our “We-awareness” comes on line as a differentiated inter-proximate identity in amber, the Inter-proximate Self is present as a fused “I-We” as soon as we differentiate sense-feeling Structures for Mama. Some Lines of the Self-system here are: worldview identities. The higher State Stages of the Inter-proximate Self are how our interior identifies with the cultural arena in which we live, and where we develop our own cultural perspective and altitude. Levels of the Inter-proximate Self, as cultural identities, go through representative State Stages: Red – fused Inter-Id; Orange – Inter-Ego; Turquoise – Inter-Soul; Violet – Inter-Intuitive Witness.

4. Cultural Self (Empirical “We”)
The Cultural Self’s Structure Stages track our own levels of capacity to communicate the information and intelligence contained in the Structures of the Empirical Self. Some Lines of the Self-system here are: aesthetics, worldview interpretation. The Cultural Self evolves communication skills through the representative Structure Stages: Red – shared feeling-sensing; Orange – shared rationalization; Turquoise – shared visions; Violet – shared intuition.

5. Distal Persona (Intuitive “Me”)
As objectively differentiated from the Proximate Self identity, the Distal Persona is how the Self sees itself. Some Lines of the Self-system here are: essential states pertaining to A.H. Almaas’ and Faisal Muqaddam’s Essence, and the Enneagram classification of intentional personae. As the objective Intuitive Self identity, the Distal Persona it is the identifier of State and Structure identities, and their evaluator, in terms of how one sees oneself. This is why different levels of Proximate “I” shell off their differentiated levels of Distal “Me” as objective Intuitive identities, in evolving a first person overview of Who (States) and What (Structures) I am. To have this personal overview of the Self-system is essential in terms of the choices we make to navigate our evolution. We are our own judge in intending and identifying our manifestation. In the after death state, our Distal Persona is the repository of these Intuitive objectives and agendas, which the Tibetans call Levels/States of Bardo experience, that will manifest the next Empirical incarnation. In judging ourselves, the Distal Persona is also the seat of the superego when fused with corresponding Empirical Structures. Its representative State Stages are: Red – Id-centered (4th Bardo bodyego); Orange – Ego-centered (3rd Bardo); Turquoise – Soul-centered (2nd Bardo); Violet – Pneumo-centered (1st Bardo).

6. Empirical Persona (Empirical “My”)
Our Empirical Self Structures also embody the objective expression of those Structures as our behavioral Persona or personality. Some Lines of the Self-system involved here are: ego stages as behavior, personality and types as per the Enneagram. This quadrant is also the arena where most data is obtained in behavioral psychology. The compartmentalization of sub-personality Structures, as Structure Stage fulcrum splits, are also to be found in this quadrant, and where the fused Intuitive Persona superego finds its voice. The representative Empirical Persona’s behavioral Structure Stages here are: Red – Body-centric; Orange – Egocentric; Turquoise – Soulcentric; Violet – Pneumocentric.

7. Inter-Distal Persona (Intuitive “Us”)
Here, beginning in the ethnocentric altitude of amber, is where we identify with the social arena in which we live and develop a social identity. Some Lines of the Self-system involved here are moral, interpersonal. In aligning ourselves with others out there, we develop a personal social identity with its own social perspective and altitude, wherein our peers recognize that “you are one of us”. The Inter-Distal Persona’s representative State Stages are: Red – symbiont; Orange – conformer; Turquoise – integrator; Violet – utopian.

8. Social Persona (Empirical “Our”)
The Social Persona’s Structure Stages track the levels of cooperative behavior. Some Lines of the Self-system involved here are sociocultural behavior, relational exchange. The world in action makes its own demands, resulting in cooperative needs for survival and growth. The Social Persona evolves cooperative behavioral skills. Representative Structure Stages: Red – familial-tribal; Orange – national; Turquoise – global; Violet – Utopian.

Go read the whole article.

Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D. - Cutting-Edge Muscle Science

A great recap of some recent conference happenings from Dr. Lowry, writing over at T-Muscle (formerly T-Nation).

Cutting-Edge Muscle Science

If you're involved in exercise or nutrition research, you know that spring and summer are peak seasons for scientific conferences. This is when people like me shed our lab coats to go out and listen to people like us talk about what we've done while wearing those lab coats.

At the best conferences, professors and students from around the globe gather to hear renowned experts, including Nobel laureates and industry icons, offer insight into the research that will someday change the way we eat, train, and live. The best moments remind me of why I became a scientist in the first place.

But even at those events, the really juicy information is interspersed with lectures that would cure a room filled with insomniacs. I sit through it all — the fascinating and the coma-inducing — so you don't have to.

This article looks at the best information I picked up at two recent conferences — the stuff that keeps me awake at night thinking of all the possible applications and implications.

Tour de Lonnie, Part One

This trip started with a look at the national weather map. There was a heavy green line of stormy precipitation on radar that sat conveniently along my flight path down to Texas. Brilliant. I hate bumpy, white-knuckled flights, and I hate fiery plane crashes even more. Nonetheless, after a brief appearance at the lab to make sure no one was having a meltdown, I headed for the airport.

About eight hours later, after a roundabout flight in which the passengers bounced around like popcorn, I arrived, exhausted, in Dallas. It was cold and clear and I was happy just to be on terra firma. Another short flight and midnight cab ride later, I was in Wichita Falls, Texas, home to Midwestern State University, and the convergence point for some scientific heavy hitters at the annual meeting of the American Society of Exercise Physiologists.

Here's a Cliff's Notes report on some of the talks.

Clench your jaw, boost your bench press

Concurrent activation potentiation — CAP — is an esoteric topic, but it's probably the one that TMUSCLE readers would find most interesting. Simply put, it's a non-dietary type of ergogenic aid.

Some of you are probably aware that the performance of prime-mover muscle groups can improve when seemingly unrelated muscles are purposefully contracted. On TMUSCLE, several articles have recommended one form of CAP: deliberately intense gripping. (This one is a recent example.)

Research has shown that various forms of CAP — aggressive gripping, jaw clenches, and core activation (such as the Valsalva maneuver) — can boost performance by roughly 15 to 20%.

The focus of this presentation was a recent study that looked at training status. Would experienced guys differ from neophytes? The results indicate no correlation between training status and performance enhancement from CAP. Peak forces and rate of force development were improved similarly for all involved.

Interestingly, women benefit less from CAP. The reason is open to speculation. Perhaps women are socially indoctrinated away from severe facial squinting, jaw clenching, and breath holding.

Personally, I'd say that depends on the woman.

How to prevent ACL injuries

Speaking of women, I'd been aware of the fact that female athletes were at much greater risk for anterior cruciate ligament injuries. But I had no idea of the magnitude: Women are six times more likely than men to have an ACL injury, which represent 69% of all knee injuries suffered by female athletes.

The most often-mentioned culprit is the quad dominance of female athletes. Their quadriceps tend to be much stronger than their glutes and hamstrings, and that imbalance puts their knees at risk.

This study evaluated the effects of a six-week lower-body training program that prioritized hamstring training. The goal was to enhance hamstring versus quad activation and timing in "ACL-risky" movements.

The result? Compared to controls, subjects who resistance trained had higher ham:quad activation ratios during drop jumps and sprint-and-cut tests. No differences in timing of muscle activation were noted. The researchers from Marquette University concluded that hamstring-prioritized training may promote knee stability and reduce injury rates for women.

Why Johnny can't run

Another interesting session focused on the inadequate state of physical education in schools. Declines are multi-faceted, including time devoted to gym class, student-to-teacher ratio, facilities, and teacher training.

This talk mostly concerned teacher preparation. The presenters shared a 2007 survey of licensed physical education teachers, which revealed that only 65% had a basic understanding of topics like power, metabolic responses to exercise, strength training, and even body-mass index (BMI).

In other words, the average TMUSCLE reader might very well understand exercise physiology at a more sophisticated level than a substantial minority of today's professional phys-ed teachers.

A lively discussion followed on the educational equivalent of the chicken-and-egg question: Is it better to have an expert teacher with less knowledge of the subject matter, or a true master of the material with less teaching experience?

In the end, it was generally agreed that kids would be better off learning from a true expert than an expert pedagogue.

When potty language doesn't enhance one's argument

There was also a series of talks from the CrossFit people. You've read a lot about CrossFit on TMUSCLE (here and here, for starters), so the relative merits have been beaten to death.

I'll summarize these sessions by saying that a number of scientists I spoke to were left wanting some hard references in the form of published research. Motivational anecdotes and arguments are interesting, but evidence-based practice requires peer-reviewed evidence.

I don't disagree with the general premises presented by the CrossFit folks, but I was left with lingering questions about the increased potential for injury and a possible devaluation of sport-specific training. Then there's the question of uniqueness. Several faculty members and doctoral students expressed concern that the CrossFit "phenomenon" is really just an attempt to brand generalized conditioning and already-employed principles like power output (work divided by time).

On top of that, the F-bombs and other expletives dropped by the CrossFitters didn't go over particularly well in a room filled with scientists and academics.

That said, I was impressed by the no-nonsense (and ultimately published) information shared by Mark Rippetoe, the subject of this TMUSCLE interview. I like that he was willing to challenge convention by pointing out that things like periodization may not be universally necessary.

Speculation works much better once you've paid your dues

The keynote lecture by Kary Mullis was similar to the CrossFit presentations in one sense, but completely different in every other way. (No F-bombs, for example.)

Mullis is a Nobel laureate (chemistry, 1993); his claim to fame is inventing the polymerase chain reaction, which has been described as one of the monumental scientific techniques of the 20th century.

His talk was about scientific paradigms — he calls them "plausible fables" — and how we need to stay flexible in the way we cling to them. His tutorial was beyond the mere boundaries of scientific or historical literacy; to my geekish delight, he ran the gamut from Ptolemy's Earth-centered universe, to the fallacy of living in three dimensions, to the Big Bang, to the lipid theory of heart disease.

With regards to the latter, he has voluntarily stopped taking his cholesterol-lowering statin meds, in part due to emerging data on bacterially based plaque disruption. If bacteria are responsible for causing arterial plaque to break away from the walls of blood vessels and clog arteries, then the traditional idea that gradual accumulation of plaque causes heart attacks goes out the window. He also expressed a half-joking concern that low cholesterol concentrations would make him "dumber."

There was much more, and maybe someday I'll write about it. But here's the most important lesson to take away: The type of flexibility Mullis described is best employed after one pays his dues with years of study ... something I wish the CrossFit folks would take to heart.

Protein + lifting = stronger bones

The nutritional talk of the day came in the form of a "distinguished lecture," presented by a well-dressed, articulate, and devilishly handsome bald guy.

My talk focused on bone-density data from long-time lifters with a penchant for protein. I used the example of lifters who've consumed an average of 195 grams of protein daily for 22 years. These guys have significantly denser bones than counterparts who don't go out of their way to take in extra protein. They also have no reliable differences in gross kidney function or damage, nor do they appear to lack fiber in their diets.

This, of course, is 180 degrees from what we currently teach about sports nutrition: supplemental protein isn't necessary, it's bad for your kidneys, you'll be constipated ...

It really is amazing how little population-specific research exists on this subject, which is central to all true muscleheads. I hope that these data will become part of the discussion, so the next time a bodybuilder asks an expert how much protein is too much, a clear and scientifically valid answer can be given.

Tour de Lonnie, Part Two

Two weeks after the Texas meeting, I hit some talks in Wisconsin that were more specific to strength training and muscle building.

High protein intake: is it safe?

Dr. Bill Ebben of Marquette University invited me to participate in their annual lecture series. Since previous speakers in the series included such heavy hitters as Jeff Volek, I was excited to be included, and a little nervous about speaking in front of more than 150 people, which is about as big a crowd as I've addressed.

My topic was, once again, protein safety, this time focusing specifically on kidney health. I can summarize by saying that using standard clinical measures — blood work, microalbuminuria, and creatine clearance — there's no reason to be concerned about protein-seeking weight lifters when compared to other lifters who don't bother with purposeful protein. Although there've been two fairly small studies on this population before, we're examining a much longer duration (mean of 10.1 years so far) and a higher protein dose (mean of 250 grams per day).

It's worth pointing out, as I did to the audience, that our work is not an attempt to encourage gigantic protein intakes, which are largely wasteful. Nor is it "proof" (research never is) that all imaginable doses of protein are without consequence, regardless of duration. All we can say is that with some well-accepted but less than super-sensitive testing, there doesn't seem to be any overt renal damage over a decade or so, despite some pretty big intakes.

Frankly, I wouldn't expect to see big problems if someone were to come along and push the envelope even further. But that's just conjecture, based on what I've read and observed. Maybe future researchers looking at microscopic histological changes will find something. But even if they do, I have to wonder how relevant and applicable that information would be, considering that we can't see much damage with the standard markers we're using today.

As always, I have to believe that more time and more data will give us more definitive answers.

Make no bones about it: lifting makes them stronger

After a night of surf, turf, and Shiraz, I headed up the road to Oshkosh for the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Wisconsin state clinic.

In the first talk, a student shared data on the best ways to gain bone density and bone strength with weight training. Traditionally, we've assumed that total mechanical tension is most important, but new data shows that the rate of loading also matters. Faster development of loading means better stimulation of bone growth.

Here's something else I didn't know: We now have data on how much rest is necessary for bone cells to re-sensitize for further growth. It appears that eight hours is sufficient for some osteogenesis to again occur from a successive bout, but it takes 24 hours to achieve a 98% return of mechanosensitivity.

I should mention that the bone remodeling doesn't just occur at the places where the tendons insert. New bone tissue accumulates along the midpoints of long bones, such as the femur, where tension is also high.

For optimal bone growth, you want to include back squats, leg presses (depending on the machine type), deadlifts, and freestanding upper-body exercises. Plyometric movements and Olympic lifts are also recommended, since those offer the highest rate of force development. You want to use a minimum of 65% of your one-rep max, and limit total rep counts to 50 per exercise per workout.

Turning a tortoise into a jackrabbit

I got a rare opportunity to see the famous Vern Gambetta talk on the subject of speed. Cool tidbits he offered were:

• Speed is a biomotor ability we all have to some extent. In other words, speed is a learnable motor task, and we can all get pretty fast if we work at it.

• Track speed doesn't equal game speed. That's why speed drills should be task-specific, and track work should be limited.

• Optimal speed drills should approximate game situations and last four to six seconds.

• Don't practice "speed in the air" (e.g. skipping) when your game time is spent on the ground.

• Surprisingly, many athletes today are actually too fast for their game, and multidirectional agility suffers as a result.

The Finish Line

There was a lot more where that came from, but I think I've offered you the best of the best information I picked up during my two weeks of speaking and listening to my fellow speakers.

The most important take-away lessons:

Responses to Robert Wright

A few days back, Cato Unbound posted an excerpt from Robert Wright's new book, The Evolution of God. Here are two responses to his essay, both also from Cato Unbound.

Tolerance and The Limits of Non-Zero-Sum Thinking

by Richard Joyce
Reaction Essay
June 10th, 2009

Suppose you are walking along a deserted path in the mountains and meet a stranger traveling in the opposite direction. You are running low on food, but he has plenty. He is running low on water, but you have plenty. Thus, you are in a position to help each other out, to swap some water for some food, to play a non-zero-sum game. However, while you approach each other, you and the stranger are not playing any game at all—the game is mere potential. If you were so inclined, you could instead choose to play a zero-sum game with him: bopping him on the head, stealing everything he has, and leaving him for dead. Or he might choose to try that out on you. Or you could walk past each other with a polite nod and play no game at all.

From this little scenario there are a couple of simple but important lessons to draw. First, there is a huge difference between being in a position to potentially play a non-zero-sum game with someone and actually playing such a game. A phrase that Wright likes to use—”being in a non-zero-sum relation”—fudges this distinction; it is ambiguous between (A) two parties being in a position to exchange costs and benefits in a mutually beneficial manner, and (B) two parties actually engaged in doing so. It may be granted that the Western world and the Muslim world are well-positioned to engage in a fruitful non-zero-sum game; it doesn’t follow that they are so engaged.

The second point to draw attention to is that although it is easy to get transfixed by the idea that non-zero-sumness is a wonderful thing, we should not forget that it is not always superior to zero-sumness. From a purely material selfish point of view, you really might be better off bopping the stranger on the head and stealing all he owns (assuming he is no threat, assuming you can escape punishment, etc.). Of course, that would be a cruel and immoral way to behave, and I’m not seriously recommending such practices. All I’m saying is that, in terms of self-gain, when an individual has the option of choosing to play either a non-zero-sum game or a zero-sum game with someone, sometimes the former will be the optimal choice and sometimes the latter will be; it depends on many variables in the environment of interaction.

For all the importance that non-zero-sum games have had in the process of evolution and the rise of civilization, it is vital that we don’t apotheosize or sentimentalize the relation to the extent that we think “non-zero-sum = good” and “zero-sum = bad.” Exploiting the heck out of the other guy has also played a huge role in the process of evolution and the rise of civilization. Thus, even if it is granted for the sake of argument that the western world and the Muslim world are presently engaged in a grand non-zero-sum game, it doesn’t automatically follow that it is in the best interests of either party to continue in this manner. Should one party get the opportunity to crush the other and take the whole cake, it is entirely logically possible that this is what that party should do.

If that seems like a chilling conclusion, let me first stress that I am speaking wholly in the abstract; I am certainly not recommending any actual practice or policy. The chilling conclusion arises only if one is assessing game strategies purely in terms of self-gain—which is not an attitude I recommend. And yet it seems to be Wright’s attitude. He advocates tolerance towards the Muslim world on the grounds that tolerance begets understanding, and through understanding we can better prevent the ranks of terrorists from swelling, which will be “in the interests of westerners.” Now, let me emphasize first that I’m all for keeping the ranks of terrorists from swelling, and I’m all for tolerance and understanding of other cultures, even hostile ones. (For the record, my attitude towards the relations between the Western and Muslim worlds is that of a typical liberal, globalized, tolerant, Obama-voter—so much so that even using phrases like “the West” and “the Muslim world” makes me uneasy.) There is, however, something unsettling about attempting to justify these attitudes purely by an appeal to self-interest.

Read the whole article.

* * * * *

More than Imagination: Collective Processes and Individual Opportunities

by Timur Kuran
Reaction Essay
June 12th, 2009

Reduced to its essence, Robert Wright’s ambitious and instructive essay makes three empirical claims and then prescribes a class of policies.

First, it observes correctly that as individuals we carry in our heads models that help us interpret such phenomena as interactions among societies, the production of wealth, and social conflict. Second, the essay proposes, again correctly, that mental models influence our actions and reactions, including our dealings with individuals who differ from ourselves in appearance, cultural background, faith, or religiosity. Thus, a person convinced that human interactions produce zero-sum outcomes will view outsiders seeking enrichment as enemies who must be blocked, resisted, diminished, perhaps even killed. Teach the same person that interactions with outsiders can be mutually beneficial, and he will get interested in trade, joint investment, and educational exchanges. The essay’s third empirical claim is that ongoing conflicts between Muslims and Westerners stem largely from zero-sum mentalities that blind individuals on both sides to the potential gains from cooperation.

These three claims lead to the policy prescription that an effective way to reduce tensions among Muslims and the West is to reconstruct the dominant mental models on the two sides. If American TV screens flash fewer images of hate-spouting, straggly-bearded, and flag-burning Pakistanis, Americans will develop a more positive image of Muslims; and this change in perception will then predispose Americans to cooperate with Muslims and address joint problems in a spirit of good will. Likewise, if Arab textbooks stop blaming all ills of the Arab world on evil colonizers who prospered by plundering superior civilizations, Arabs will more readily recognize the immense benefits that they have already reaped from their interactions with the West. Their minds opened up to the possibility of mutually profitable cooperation, they will shed their hostility and start pursuing cooperative ventures with non-Muslims.

Wright’s three claims contain many grains of truth. Moreover, there is no doubt that changing Muslim and Western perceptions concerning their interactions with one another would diminish interreligious tensions, facilitate solutions to various global crises, and make it easier to generate effective responses to chronic problems of the Muslim world. Yet, achieving these desirable outcomes requires much more than campaigns to alter perceptions. Two of Wright’s claims are only partly true, and the missing factors have critical policy implications.

People’s actions and reactions depend on more than their mental models. They depend also, and in politically charged contexts primarily, on the prevailing social pressures. Consider the resident of an impoverished, Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. When he opts to participate in an anti-American demonstration, he need not be acting on the belief that global trade produces zero-sum effects. His principal motivation may well be that by endorsing Islamism publicly and openly aiding a Taliban-supported cause he gains social status, economic advantages, and even physical security. Suppose we pluck that person out of the Pakistani-Afghan border area, place him in a peaceful neighborhood of Lahore, and give him a lucrative job. Living among Muslims at ease with modernity and facing a different set of social pressures, he will no longer feel compelled to demonstrate against foreigners. Obviously, what goes for one demonstrator goes for the rest. Each joins the demonstration, in part, because others in his neighborhood are demonstrating. Hence, what explains the anti-American demonstration in question is a collective process, not simply a faulty mental model that shapes myriads of individual actions independently.

Read the whole article.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Changing Minds - We're more like others than we think

Sometimes it's good to get a reminder that we are not as rational as we would like to believe.

We're more like others than we think

Quick: how would you feel if there was a change in local government where you live? How about if you won a holiday? Or if you had a car accident? Or you were infected with measles?

Whilst we can guess how we might feel in any situation, we are often poor at getting it right. In predicting our emotions we often over-estimate, particularly for traumatic events. We may also hopefully underestimate how we will free.

Professor Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues did a number of experiments around this with students that included getting them to share dating experiences and sharing personality data in story formats.

What they discovered was that how others feel about something is often more accurate a prediction than how we think we will feel about it ourselves. A reason for this is where we think we are unique and quite different from others and so take a polar position. This can be seen in conversations where we take exaggerated positions and stretch the truth to make ourselves more special. The reality is that we are more like others than we think.

D.T. Gilbert, M.A. Killingsworth, & R.N. Eyre (2009). The Surprising Power of Neighborly Advice. Science, 323, 1617-1619

The Vegetarian Myth: Food Justice and Sustainability

A review of The Vegetarian Myth: Food Justice and Sustainability over at Reality Sandwich - seems like a necessary antidote to all the extremists on the vegetarian side.

Vegetarian Myth Buster

Jennifer Flynn

As a vegan for 20 years, Lierre Kieth, experienced a wake up call, a call that she refers to as growing up into adulthood while she searched to live in peace with her natural surroundings. Kieth's investigates and challenges her own personal beliefs regarding vegetarians, agricultural practices, and ecological science in her new book, The Vegetarian Myth: Food Justice and Sustainability.

Referencing farmers who have put sustainable and ethical practices in place on their land, Kieth makes us question the accuracy of vegetarians touting the "wise" techniques of current agricultural systems and calls for a return to realism where observation of the natural world leads us to practices that would truly benefit the world and human health. Positing that vegetarianism is not a sustainable response to the food crisis and that current agricultural practices of raising animal based food products is not the answer either, The Vegetarian Myth raises awareness of the integral problem of modern civilization in which the food we eat and the way it is raised is a symptom of our lifestyle of disconnectedness from the natural world. Simply saving the lives of animals by not eating them will not save these species, the human race, or the planet as we know it.

Keith points to the cyclical nature of diet and the elimination of carnivores and herbivores in the natural environment. She uses the Serengeti, where grazing animals digest grasses and give back to the parched soil, as an example. The grazing animals are consumed by carnivores and omnivores, including humans. But with an overpopulation of grazing animals, the ecosystem would become unbalanced with every bit of green eaten. With an overpopulation of predatory animals, grasslands become piled with plant material that is slow to break down in the arid climate. Human intervention into this cycle, particularly vegetarianism, can upset the balance.

To approach sustainability, Keith urges a development in thought surrounding vegetarianism and lifestyle, relying on the wisdom of the Earth.


Chloe Angyal - The Importance of Empathy

More on the cultural "debate" about empathy.

The Importance of Empathy

It's gotten a bad rap over the last few weeks, but graduation season is the perfect time to remember that empathy may be society's best hope.


Photo by » Zitona «

School is officially out: thousands of new graduates have been sent into the world, their steps buoyed by inspiring words, lofty ambitions and the pressing need to pay off their student loans. For most of us, there are just a few weeks left before the “real world” begins in earnest. Before this sets in, I’m spending a few weeks in my hometown of Sydney, Australia, and on this trip home my boyfriend, who is making his first visit here, joins me. He is a world away from New Jersey, where we just spent four years in college, and from California, where he was raised. On the other hand, I’m simply home, sleeping in the same room, driving the same roads, and enjoying the comfort of familiarity. For the next two weeks, I will be his guide, and the experience is starting to turn me into something of a tourist myself.

No matter where you live, it’s easy to take your hometown for granted. Most of my friends who grew up in New York City have never been to the Statue of Liberty. Friends who live in London actively avoid Trafalgar Square and Big Ben. As a high schooler, I spent every winter weekday morning shivering on a ferry across Sydney Harbour, trying to warm the stretch of freezing flesh between the top of my uniform knee socks and the hem of my dress as we sailed past the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. As a result, I simply stopped noticing that we were passing two of the world’s most famous and beautiful landmarks.

But showing off your hometown to a foreigner, someone who stops and stares and snaps photos in a manner that can only be described as compulsive, is always a revelation. Touring Sydney with someone who is seeing it for the first time forces me to take in the things I long ago stopped noticing—as well as some things I never noticed at all—and to appreciate them anew. In guiding a newcomer around this spectacular city, I have been able to see this small sliver of the world through his eyes.

For new college graduates, the need to see the world this way has never been more urgent. Each of us has graduated with the same instruction: make the world better. That’s no small task; there are enormous problems to be solved—climate change, poverty and the disastrous world economy to name just a few—and the more cynical took those inspiring Commencement speeches with a grain of salt. But when I think about my friends and fellow graduates and about what they have planned for the next stage of their lives, it’s clear to me that every one of them, even the cynics, will need to cultivate an ability to see the world through another’s eyes.

Compassion and empathy have gotten some pretty bad press in the last few weeks. In response to President Obama’s description of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as “empathetic,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, “I don’t need some justice up there feeling bad for my opponent because of their life circumstances or their condition, and shortchanging me and my ability to get fair treatment under the law… Empathetic, I’ll give you empathy. Empathize right on your behind.” Empathy, in Steele’s estimation, is the enemy of justice, creating inevitable biases and making it impossible for Sotomayor to properly serve her country. Empathy, in other words, is a weakness.

Say what you will about how realistic it is for a bunch of 22-year-olds to expect to change the world, but if we are to have even the slimmest of chances at making even the slightest of differences, empathy and compassion will be essential. For those of us who seek to make the world a more just place, empathy is not a weakness, it’s a strength, and it will be central to our work, whatever form that work takes.

My friend Michael, who’ll be Teaching for America in Mississippi, won’t get very far without empathy. Whitney, on her way to Lesotho, in Southern Africa, at the Baylor Pediatric Aids Initiative, won’t even make it onto the plane without her deep sense of compassion and desire to serve others. Even my boyfriend, the soon-to-be investment banker, will be practicing his own brand of empathy as he starts work with a newfound awareness that his actions on Wall Street could have real consequences for real people on Main Street.

As we strive to change the world in whatever small way we can, each of us will need to consider different perspectives, new approaches and alternative solutions to the injustices we hope to alleviate. Empathy, compassion and the ability to see things we’ve never seen, or long ago stopped noticing, are the seeds of all positive change. Perhaps the next step to creating a more just world has been right in front of you all along, just like the Sydney Opera House has been for me. So take another look, and you might find it. Sometimes, all you need is a new set of eyes.

More on Robert Wright's The Evolution of God

A few more reviews of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God.

Light at the end of religion's dark tunnel

Faith is growing ever more extreme but a new book on the evolution of God gives Andrew Sullivan hope

The 21st century has not been kind to religion. It began with the mass murder of thousands of innocents by Muslim religious fanatics in New York city; it continued with the news that the Catholic hierarchy had operated and protected an international child abuse conspiracy for decades; and the Pew poll recently found that the Americans most likely to support torture of terror suspects were those who attended evangelical churches most frequently.

The intellectual onslaught has been just as severe, from Christopher Hitchens’s oddly persuasive massacre of a few fish in a small barrel, to the former believer Bart Ehrman’s detonation of scriptural accuracy and Sam Harris’s evisceration of religious moderates. It’s perhaps unsurprising that even in America, the most devout of all western nations, non-belief is soaring.

Worse, perhaps, the response of organised religion to all this has been not to take some self-confident steps in debating the validity of these critiques, but to dig in deeper and re-fundamentalise. From Pope Benedict’s attempt to freeze theological debate and reassert bald papal authority, to resurgent resistance to teaching evolution in America’s Bible Belt and the degeneration of Islam into the medieval madness of the Taliban, the polarisation seems to be gaining pace.

The possibility of a reasonable engagement between faith and reason, between doctrine and biblical scholarship, between a mature theology and a golden age of scientific research — all this seems very distant right now.

And that’s why a new book gives me hope. It reminds us that if you take a few thousand steps back from our current crisis, the long-term prognosis is much better than you might imagine.

The book is The Evolution of God (due out in the US next month) and it is by Robert Wright, a secular writer best known in America for thoughtful defences of evolutionary psychology and free trade. The tone of the book is dry scepticism with a dash of humour; the content is supple, dense and layered. What makes it fresh and necessary is that it’s a non-believer’s open-minded exploration of how religious doctrine and practice have changed through human history — usually for the better.

From primitive animists to the legends of the first gods, battling like irrational cloud-inhabiting humans over the cosmos, Wright tells the story of how war and trade, technology and human interaction slowly exposed humans to the gods of others. How this awareness led to the Jewish innovation of a hidden and universal God, how the cosmopolitan early Christians, in order to market their doctrines more successfully, universalised and sanitised this Jewish God in turn, and how Islam equally included a civilising universalism despite its doctrinal rigidity and founding violence.

Fundamentalism, in this reading, is a kind of repetitive neurotic interlude in the evolution of religion towards more benign and global forms. It’s not a linear process — misunderstanding, violence, stupidity, pride and anger will always propel human beings backwards just when they seem on the verge of progress. Greater proximity has often meant greater hatred — as one god has marshalled earthly forces against another. But in the very, very long run, as human beings have realised that religion is nothing if not true and that truth can be grasped or sought in many different ways, doctrines have evolved. Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism — our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.

Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth — even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over.

What’s subtle about the book is that while it makes a materialist case for how God evolved — as a function of trade and travel, globalisation and science — it does not reduce faith to these facts on the ground. Hovering over the book is a small sense that, far from disproving the existence of God, this evolving doctrine might point merely to humankind’s slow education into the real nature of the divine.

Today’s fundamentalists posit a doctrinal truth rooted in the past, in a moment of revelation we are always trying to capture, to nail down in a literal phrase. But what if the final word is not in the human past but in the human future — as we assimilate our global experiences of the divine and try to make sense of all of them? What if we are travelling towards our deepest moment of religious truth rather than away from it?

God, after all, is definitionally eternal and humans are definitionally temporal. Why should divine truth, however once revealed, be immune to human misunderstanding? Why shouldn’t time and thought and experience help us uncover the truth rather then taking us further away from it? In earlier eras, theologians were eager to see how new discoveries in human knowledge could inform their faith. Now such discoveries are seen as threats. That’s a function of insecurity, not faith. And why should we see ourselves as believers constantly trying to recover a pristine past instead of struggling towards a truer future?

My own view, as a struggling and doubting person of faith, is that truth matters in whatever mode we find it — but ultimate truth, because we are not ultimate beings, will always elude us. The search for this truth is the point, illuminated in my own faith by Jesus. Humans cannot live without this search, never have and never will. Our consciousness asks questions to which there will never be a complete answer; we are religious because we are human. And the challenge of our time is neither the arrogant dismissal of religious life and heritage, nor the rigid insistence that all metaphysical questions are already answered or unaskable, but a humble openness to history and science and revelation in the journey of faith.

This vision is beleaguered now both within religious life and outside it. But if we are to survive this era of technology with the potential of mass destruction, if we are to endure past the darkness of the Taliban and the religious right, this process of religious reform is not an option. It is a necessity. How relieving to have a sane, sober rationalist point this out.

* * * * *

Lisa Miller

Let’s Talk About God

A new book redefines the faith debate.

The atheist writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have presented us with a choice: either you don't believe in God or you're a dope. "It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God, simply because that belief makes him happy," writes Harris in the 2005 "Atheist Manifesto" now posted on the Web site of his new nonprofit, The Reason Project. Their brilliance, wit and (general) good humor have made the new generation of atheists celebrities among people who like to consider themselves smart. We enjoy their books and their telegenic bombast so much that we don't mind their low opinion of us. Dopey or not, 90 percent of Americans continue to say they believe in God.

This iteration of the faith-versus-reason debate has gone on for years, with no real resolution. Men (yes, mostly men) of faith have published passionate defenses of God. (See Tim Keller's 2008 The Reason for God.) In response, believers have published accounts of journeys toward unbelief; atheists have testified to conversions. The latest entrant in this category is from the Marxist Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Yet despite the proliferation of viewpoints, I'm guessing few readers have ever closed one of these volumes and honestly declared themselves changed.

Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, which comes out next week, is about to reframe this debate. Wright doesn't argue one side or other of the "Is God real?" question. He leaves that aside. Instead, he grapples with God as an idea that has changed—evolved—through history. Wright is a journalist who specializes in evolutionary psychology, and his previous book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, was a reported meditation on the way human evolution changes us for the better. Over time, we've grown more moral, more responsible and more in-spired. In The New York Times Book Review, the British pale-ontologist Simon Conway Morris threw down the gauntlet: he accused Wright "of a failure of nerve." Why not, he asked (and this is my rephrasing), connect that sublime human capacity for moral behavior to the thing that some people call God? (Writing in Slate, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker took the opposite tack, accusing Wright of providing ammunition to advocates of intelligent design.)

Wright picks up the challenge in The Evolution of God. He argues that the scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths were written in history by real people who aimed to improve things—economic, social, geographical—for their constituencies. (And then he exhaustively, minutely catalogs who those writers were and what those specific aims might have been. This is not a book to read on the beach this summer.) But he never argues that what he calls a materialist view of scripture disproves God. Instead, he takes another approach: as our societies have grown more complex and more global, our conceptions of God have grown more demanding and more moral. This is a good thing, for religion can "help us orient our daily lives, recognize good and bad, and make sense of joy and suffering alike." Wright is optimistic even about Islam in today's world: "The ratio of good to bad scriptures varies among the Abrahamic faiths, but in all religions it's possible for benign interpretation of scripture to flourish."

Though he never comes right out and declares that the human propensity for morality—and, by extension, truth and love—is given by God (or is God), he comes awfully close. In an imaginary debate with a scientist, he compares God to an electron. You know it's there, but you don't know anything real about what it looks like or what its properties are. Scientists believe in electrons because they see the effects of electrons on the world. "You might say," he writes in his afterword, "that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn't have to be crazy to say it." (I can already hear Steven Pinker typing like mad.)

With those three sentences, Wright gives relief and intellectual ballast to those believers weary of the punching-bag tone of the recent faith-and-reason debates. The arguments are "fun, but they degrade the academy," said Great Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, at a dinner sponsored by the Templeton Foundation recently. What they miss, he says, "is that the meaning of the system lies outside of the system and the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe."

The Evolution of God admits this definition as a possibility. But there are other possibilities as well. In a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 60 percent of respondents said they believe in "a personal God." But what exactly do they mean? That God is like a person? That God talks to them, personally? And what of the others, who imagine God as "an impersonal force"? When people say they believe in "God," they might be talking about what Harris calls an absurdity. Or they might be talking about the mysterious, unknowable qualities in life (or outside of life) that make us strive toward our best selves.

Miller is NEWSWEEK’s religion editor.

* * * * *

Questions for Robert Wright: Evolutionary Theology

The New York Times Magazine | May 29, 2009


"The Evolution of God," your new book on the history of religion, strikes me as a welcome antidote to the stream of books by atheists that have become best sellers in recent years. Doesn't it seem as if atheism has become its own form of fundamentalism?

I don't think it's a coincidence that the new atheists really got traction in the years after 9/11. The rise of fundamentalism in Islam, but also in Christianity in America, has so highlighted the dark side of religion that people denouncing religion as a whole have a receptive audience.

Like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. What do you think of their work?
I think they have naïve ideas about the importance of religion in the world. They just seem oblivious to the good that religion has done, and I guess one point in my book is how malleable religion is; it has the capacity for good, which tends to come out when people see themselves as having something to gain from peaceful interaction with other people.

Your approach to religious history is so nakedly materialist. For instance, you claim the Apostle Paul was a kind of marketing guru who dropped the more demanding requirements of Judaism, like circumcision and dietary restrictions, to attract more followers.
Do the math. How many Christians are there today and how many Jews are there? If his goal was to gain a large following, he seems to have made the right tactical decision there.

Do you have to make Christianity sound like a pre-electronic Facebook?
Institutions thrive when they can serve the interest of a bunch of people, and there's no reason to think the church is different. None of this is to say Paul didn't feel divinely inspired.

O.K., but where is the transcendence in your book?
Well, I wind up arguing that the drift of history, however materially driven, has enough moral direction to suggest that there's some larger purpose at work, and I guess you can call that transcendence.

You were born in Lawton, Okla., which sounds like a defining experience.
We left when I was 3 years old and moved to Midland, Tex., childhood home of George Bush, and then moved to a bunch of other places, mainly in Texas. My father was in the Army.

Did you ride horses and do other mythic Western things?
I rode a horse once while visiting a cousin who lived on an actual farm, and I felt scared and inept. I remember my uncles sitting under a weeping willow and whittling branches while they talked. They all had pocketknives. The height of my aspiration was to someday do that.

Were you a churchgoer as a child?
Southern Baptists don't fool around. At age 8 or 9, I chose to go to the front of the church in response to the altar call and accepted Jesus as my savior.

When did you begin to doubt?
I think it was roughly sophomore year in high school. I encountered the theory of evolution, and my parents were creationists. There was a clash. They brought a Baptist minister over to the house to try to convince me that evolution hadn't happened. He was not entirely successful, I would say.

Then you went off and studied science?
No, I'm not a scientist; I'm just a journalist. I don't have a doctorate in anything.

Do you ever pray?
I meditate, and occasionally that turns into a kind of prayer for help in being a better person. But so far as I know, I'm basically just talking to myself.

Do you have any insight into President Obama's spiritual life?
No, except that he seems to have the self-assurance of someone who believes that God is on his side.

That can be dangerous.
Thinking you're doing God's work is fine if you actually are serving humankind. And I think Obama has a better chance of doing that than most. He shifts between the professorial and the preacherly in a way that is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul, although Paul probably attended church more often and worked out less.

--Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Deborah Solomon

Stewart Goetz - The Causal Closure Argument

Stewart Goetz takes a look at the dualism of body and soul in his new article for The Global Spiral, "The Causal Closure Argument."
The Causal Closure Argument

I begin by stating that I do not defend any form of materialism in this paper. Rather, I defend a commonsensical form of soul-body dualism in which souls make undetermined choices for purposes (reasons). I defend this commonsensical view of the world against an argument that is frequently used to undermine its truth. This is the argument from causal closure. Before setting forth and examining this argument, however, it behooves us to have a reasonably clear and concise commonsense sketch of how souls are causally related to their physical bodies on occasions when human beings make what I will assume are essentially undetermined choices (from here on, I will simply assume that choices are essentially undetermined). This picture is as follows: on certain occasions, we have reasons for performing incompatible actions. Because we cannot perform both actions, we must make a choice to do one or the other (or neither), and whichever choice we make, we make that choice for a reason or purpose, where that reason provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice. The making of a choice is a mental event that occurs in a soul and either it, or some other mental event associated with it (e.g., an intention to act) directly causally produces an effect event in that soul’s physical body. In other words, there is mental-to-physical causation and its occurrence is ultimately and irreducibly explained teleologically by the reason that explains the making of the choice.

To put some flesh on the proverbial bones, consider the movements of my fingers right now on the keys of my keyboard as I work on this essay. If these movements occur because of a choice of mine to type, then these physical movements are ultimately and irreducibly explained teleologically in terms of the purpose for making my choice to write this essay, which, we can suppose, is that I make clear that there are no good scientific objections to the view that human beings are soul-body compounds and that those souls have free will (make choices for reasons). Hence, if the movements of my fingers are ultimately occurring because I made a choice to write this essay for a purpose, then a mental event involving me (a soul) must be causing those movements to occur as I write this essay for the purpose that I make clear that there are no good objections to the view that human beings have souls that make choices. In other words, if our commonsense view of a human being is correct, I, as a soul, cause events to occur in the physical world by making a choice to write this essay for a purpose.

From the example of my typing, it should be clear that the claim that there is causal interaction between a soul and its physical body is not a ‘God-of-the-gaps’ type of argument. In discussions about God’s existence, critics often argue that theists postulate God’s existence in light of an inability of science to provide a complete explanation for a physical datum (or data). This lack of a complete explanation is a gap in the scientific story. By analogy, a critic might argue that I am postulating my soul’s existence in light of an inability of science to provide a complete explanation for the movements of my fingers when I type this essay. But this argument would be mistaken. My claim is not that there are certain physical events (the movements of my fingers) for which a failure to find a complete physical causal story warrants appeal to the causal activity of a soul as their ultimate explanation. Rather, my claim is that our commonsense understanding of our purposeful activity entails that some physical events must occur whose ultimate causal explanation is not other physical events but non-physical mental events whose occurrences are explained teleologically by purposes.


What is wrong with this commonsense understanding of a human being? According to many philosophers, a serious problem for the view that souls make choices that causally produce events in physical bodies arises out of the practice of science.1 Richard Taylor puts forth a lengthy argument, the gist of which is as follows:

Consider some clear and simple case of what would . . . constitute the action of the mind upon the body. Suppose, for example, that I am dwelling in my thought upon high and precarious places, all the while knowing that I am really safely ensconced in my armchair. I imagine, perhaps, that I am picking my way along a precipice and visualize the destruction that awaits me far below in case I make the smallest slip. Soon, simply as the result of these thoughts and images, . . . perspiration appears on the palms of my hands. Now here is surely a case, if there is any, of something purely mental . . . and outside the realm of physical nature bringing about observable physical changes. . . . Here, . . . one wants to say, the mind acts upon the body, producing perspiration.
But what actually happens, alas, is not nearly so simple as this. To say that thoughts in the mind produce sweat on the hands is to simplify the situation so grossly as hardly to approximate any truth at all of what actually happens. . . . The perspiration . . . is secreted by tiny, complex glands in the skin. They are caused to secrete this substance, not by any mind acting on them, but by the contraction of little unstriated muscles. These tiny muscles are composed of numerous minute cells, wherein occur chemical reactions of the most baffling complexity. . . . These . . . connect eventually, and in the most dreadfully complicated way, with the hypothalamus, a delicate part of the brain that is centrally involved in the emotional reactions of the organism . . . . [B]ut it is not seriously considered by those who do know something about it that mental events must be included in the description of its operations. The hypothalamus, in turn, is closely connected with the cortex and subcortical areas of the brain, so that physical and chemical changes within these areas produce corresponding physical effects within the hypothalamus, which in turn, by a series of physical processes whose complexity has only barely been suggested, produces such remote effects as the secretion of perspiration on the surface of the hands.
Such, in the barest outline, is something of the chemistry and physics of emotional perspiration. . . . The important point, however, is that in describing it as best we can, there is no need, at any stage, to introduce mental or nonphysical substances or reactions.2

According to Taylor, while we are inclined to believe that certain physical events in our bodies are ultimately explained by mental events of non-physical substances, as a matter of fact there is no need at any point to step outside of the physical causal story to explain the occurrences of those physical events. Jaegwon Kim uses an example of a neuroscientist to make the same point:

You want [or choose] to raise your arm, and your arm goes up. Presumably, nerve impulses reaching appropriate muscles in your arm made those muscles contract, and that’s how the arm went up. And these nerve signals presumably originated in the activation of certain neurons in your brain. What caused those neurons to fire? We now have a quite detailed understanding of the process that leads to the firing of a neuron, in terms of complex electrochemical processes involving ions in the fluid inside and outside a neuron, differences in voltage across cell membranes, and so forth. All in all we seem to have a pretty good picture of the processes at this microlevel on the basis of the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. If the immaterial mind is going to cause a neuron to emit a signal (or prevent it from doing so), it must somehow intervene in these electrochemical processes. But how could that happen? At the very interface between the mental and the physical where direct and unmediated mind-body interaction takes place, the nonphysical mind must somehow influence the state of some molecules, perhaps by electrically charging them or nudging them this way or that way. Is this really conceivable? Surely the working neuroscientist does not believe that to have a complete understanding of these complex processes she needs to include in her account the workings of immaterial souls and how they influence the molecular processes involved. . . . Even if the idea of a soul’s influencing the motion of a molecule . . . were coherent, the postulation of such a causal agent would seem neither necessary nor helpful in understanding why and how our limbs move. . . . Most physicalists . . . accept the causal closure of the physical not only as a fundamental metaphysical doctrine but as an indispensable methodological presupposition of the physical sciences. . . . If the causal closure of the physical domain is to be respected, it seems prima facie that mental causation must be ruled out . . . .3

While Kim agrees with Taylor about the lack of a need on the part of a scientist to go outside the physical explanatory story, he introduces the stronger idea that to be successful the physical sciences need to make the methodological assumption of the causal closure of the physical world. Is he right about this? To insure clarity about what is at issue, consider one more example of movements of my body that according to common sense could only be adequately explained by mental causation of a soul whose choice is teleologically explained by a purpose or reason. Right now, I am tired and feel tight in my back after typing for several minutes, so I raise my arms in order to relax. Reference to my mental activity and my purposes for acting seems not only helpful but also necessary to explain both the movements of my fingers on the typewriter while I am typing and the subsequent motions of my arms when I relax. If we assume for the sake of discussion that I, as a soul, cause my fingers and arms to move by directly causing some neural events in the motor section of my brain, then when I move my fingers and raise my arms for purposes, I must directly cause initial neural events in my brain that ultimately lead to the movements of those extremities. In other words, in order to explain adequately (teleologically) the movements of my limbs, there must be causal openness or a causal gap in my brain. While Kim believes the commonsense view implies this causal openness, he also believes that it is because the commonsense view implies the existence of this causal gap that it must be mistaken. Because the neuroscientist methodologically assumes causal closure of the physical world, what she discovers as the explanation for what occurs in my brain and limbs when I type and relax must not and need not include reference to the mental causal activity of my soul and the ultimate and irreducible explanatory purpose for its choice to act. Given that the principle of causal closure entails the exclusion of a soul’s mental causation of a physical event and the ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that mental event and its effects by a purpose, it is imperative that we examine the argument from causal closure to see if it provides a good reason to believe that the movements of my fingers and arms when I am typing and stretching must be completely explicable in terms of neuroscience (or any other physical science), with the result that no reference to the causal activity of my soul and its purposes for typing and raising my arms is required.

Contrary to what Kim maintains, there is good reason to think that the argument from causal closure is unsound.4 To understand where it goes wrong, let us distinguish between a neuroscientist as an ordinary human being and a neuroscientist as a physical scientist. Surely a neuroscientist as an ordinary human being who is trying to understand how and why my fingers move and arms go up while I am typing must and would refer to me and my reasons (purposes) for acting in a complete account of why my limbs move.5 Must she, however, as a physical scientist, avoid making such a reference? Kim claims that she must avoid such a reference because as a physical scientist she must make a methodological assumption about the causal closure of the physical world. Is Kim right about this and, if he is, is such a commitment compatible with a commitment on the part of a physical scientist as an ordinary human being to causal openness? Or must a neuroscientist, who as a physical scientist assumes causal closure, also assume, if he is consistent, that as an ordinary human being his mention of choices and their teleological explanations is no more than an explanatory heuristic device that is necessary because of an epistemic gap in his knowledge concerning the physical causes of human behavior?

Read the rest of the argument.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

CBC - The Brain that Changes Itself

Very cool - I love the idea of brain plasticity.

The Brain that Changes Itself

Thursday May 7, 2009 at 10 pm PT on CBC Newsworld

Related Video

The Brain that Changes Itself

Watch the full episode.

43:38 min

Join us as we explore the revolutionary science of "neuroplasticity" - a concept that expands not just our knowledge of how our brains work, but how we use them.

For centuries the human brain has been thought of as incapable of fundamental change. People suffering from neurological defects, brain damage or strokes were usually written-off as hopeless cases. But recent and continuing research into the human brain is radically changing how we look at the potential for neurological recovery.

The human brain, as we are now quickly learning, has a remarkable ability to change itself - in fact, even to rewire itself.

The Brain that Changes Itself, based on the best-selling book by Toronto psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Norman Doidge, presents a strong case for reconsidering how we view the human mind.

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Dr. Norman Doidge Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Dr. Norman Doidge

Dr. Norman Doidge travels across North America to meet some of the pioneering researchers who made revolutionary discoveries about the plasticity of the human brain. He also visits with the people who have been most affected by this research - the patients whose lives have been forever changed - people once thought of as incurable who are now living normal lives.

Known in scientific circles as "neuroplasticity," this radical new approach to the brain provides an incredible way to bring the human brain back to life. Some of the cases that we meet are:

  • Roger Behm, a blind man who is now able to see via his tongue (and can throw a basketball into a garbage can to prove it).
  • Cheryl Schiltz, who was written-off by doctors when she lost her sense of balance due to a drug's side effect. Once sentenced to a lifetime of wobbling, her brain rewired itself through a seemingly simple therapy, and has now regained her balance and returned to a normal life.
  • Michelle Mack, one of the greatest examples of the brain's ability to adapt: she was born, literally, with just half of her brain.
  • Michael Bernstein, who suffered a debilitating stroke in the prime of his life, paralyzing the left side of his body. He's now back to his former life, as his brain functions have been rerouted and re-invigorated.
Michelle Mack and Norman Doidge Michelle Mack and Norman Doidge

The implications of this research, presented by Dr. Doidge through these compelling stories, are enormous. The impact is just beginning to be felt in research, medical and rehabilitation circles. Simply put, the brain we once thought we knew turns out to be quite different than the one we discover in this documentary: the human brain is a surprisingly resilient and adaptable part of the body.

"What this documentary clearly shows is that we need to re-examine what we think we know about the human brain," explains the film's director/producer, Mike Sheerin. "We see first-hand some remarkable therapies - the stories are almost miraculous - but in every case you're left with the feeling that it's not the science that's amazing. What's amazing is the human brain. This long overdue new approach to the brain will change all of our lives down the road."

The Brain that Changes Itself is directed by Mike Sheerin and is co-written by Dr. Norman Doidge and Mike Sheerin and produced by 90th Parallel Productions Ltd. in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and ARTE France.