Class Warfare Blog

October 8, 2017

The Flip Side of No Man is an Island

Filed under: Uncategorized — Steve Ruis @ 10:19 am
Tags: , ,

Last night I ended up going to bed almost an hour earlier than usual. I think I was bored. And, after I had read for about an hour, also usual, I no longer wanted to read, so I thought I should go to sleep, but my mind had other ideas. Sleep did not come and my mind whirred around like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil. At one point, though, a large number of “things” came “together.” It is hard to describe this event. It “sounded” as if a number of pieces (ideas, thoughts, approaches, … ?) clicked together. There was a sound associated with each these attachments, a click, much like the sound of a domino slapped on a table top or the sound of a Go stone slapped on a good kaya Go board. I am sure the sound was imaginary. (Aren’t all things you hear in your mind imaginary?)

I immediately started teasing apart all the myriad parts of this new construction, a little like the Starship Enterprise dropping out of warp drive at a new solar system. At first it is a thing in itself, then we notice that it is made of parts (planets and stars and …) and that each part has additional parts and that they are all part of the whole but we can only learn about them by getting closer.

One of the parts of this new construct was the title of this post. Actually it was the original quote (John Donne?) “No man is an island entire of itself.” But on closer inspection I realized it was the thought that this was not right, the exact opposite was closer to being true. The post title then snapped into my mind, with the use of “the flip side,” referring to songs on record albums also being part of the puzzle.

I apologize for jumping around like this, but this is what it is. Eventually all of the pieces and how they connect I will make known, but don’t expect the path getting there to be straight or even straightforward.

It all started midday yesterday as I was walking to the store. I noticed that I was whistling a song. I only do this when alone because, well, my whistling is atrocious and why callously increase human suffering? The tune immediately was desirable for a project I was working on. The project is creating a playlist in iTunes of songs for my partner to play after I die. The songs I am choosing are songs that make me think of her and my love for her. But I couldn’t remember the title of the song or how to find it. My go-to procedure to recover lost song titles is to hum or scat (dah, dee, dah, …) the song and she will tell me what the title is and will be able to sing it even. Me, I can’t remember the words of any song.

Actually, it is not quite true that “I can’t remember the words of any song.” I can remember the chorus of some songs (She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! See?) but the lyrics? Nope. The only song I know the lyrics of is “Happy Birthday.” I have learned the lyrics of a handful of other songs over the years (find the lyrics, write them over and over, read them, speak them, try to sing them), but they fade away shortly thereafter. It is as if they are written in faint chalk and there is this eraser which obliterates them to make room on the chalkboard for other stuff.

Why I cannot remember the lyrics to songs has puzzled me. The narrative I made up to explain it to myself was that I found songs, as a child, to be very powerful emotionally, so powerful I felt swept away. This still happened, no, happens as an adult. I remember when I was a young adult learning a new song and when it came up on a mix tape I was playing in my car while commuting, I got so emotional I had to pull the car over so I didn’t have an accident. I can tell you where I was at the time, what time of day it was, that the song was sung by Vonda Sheppard, that the song title was “You Belong to Me.” The lyrics? I haven’t a clue. I do have a mild impression that the lyrics seemed stupid, but…. Oh, it is on the list.

Why didn’t I just turn off the song? Good question. I developed a process that when I discovered such an emotionally charged song, I would play it over and over and over, often for hours to dull the emotional reaction through repetition. That seemed to work a little. So, I didn’t want to shortcut the process I was undertaking to learn how to deal with my emotions. My narrative, though, was that I found these emotional feelings so overwhelming as a child that I blocked out (or immediately erased from memory, or ?) the words whose meanings were causing me such turmoil and I trained myself so well, I still can’t hear song lyrics so that they stick.

Another piece of my mental construct then clicked into place (click): I have a life goal to “own my emotions,” that is when I have an emotional reaction, it is allowed to run its course without interference. Was this goal connected? I think so, but I hadn’t made the connection until just then.

I have been studying things like imagination, memory, and emotion lately, actually for a long time but also recently. I just bought a book entitled “The Male Brain” which is on that path. A couple of the pieces of the construct were clearly that males and females seem to be different in this larger regard (click). Harkening back to the Donne quote I think that all people are islands in and of themselves, not connected, certainly not connected by a nonexistant god, which I believe was Donne’s point. I think this is so not because our circumstances and our feelings and how we go through our lives are inherently different, but that we do not share our inner lives much at all.

I am old enough to remember sports figures being asked if they had consulted a psychologist or other mental health professional only to receive the puzzled response, “Why, I’m not crazy?” This attitude seemed to be shared with almost everyone else as I remember it. To consult a psychologist, you had to be sick in the head … crazy. And no one wanted to admit that because there are no visible signs of being crazy or being cured, so once slapped with that label, you were crazy forever. I remember feeling shame on my first visit to a psychologist. Today, of course, modern athletes have a team behind them: a physical trainer, a nutritionist, a financial advisor and a sport psychologist (who were smart enough to re-label themselves as “sport psychologists” and even “Performance Enhancement Specialists” rather than as just psychologists). So, maybe we are making progress.

Secretly, I think we all believe that we are inherently different inside, and those differences might not be acceptable to others, might even be abhorrent. It is hard enough to learn how to behave and speak around others, let alone to defend one’s inner life when we cannot see anyone else’s to make comparisons. I did not tell anyone about my inability to hear song lyrics. I was weird enough as a child I didn’t have to add to it. Other people sang songs at the drop of a hat. If it was “Happy Birthday,” I sang along.

(An Aside As I was proofreading this I thought of athletes who have microphones thrust into their faces frequently and end up saying embarrassing things, e.g. “The earth is flat” or “To hear a woman ask that question is funny.” Part of the inner life of these guys came out in an unguarded moment and those guys either become more guarded or get ostracized and even drummed out of their leagues.)

A consequence of this part of me is that I have to go on the Internet and look up the lyrics of all of the songs I place on that playlist for my partner. She hears the lyrics I do not. The voices on the songs I hear are just another set of instruments in an instrumental piece. (Consciously anyway, who knows about subconsciously? Possibly, my conscious mind hears the words and my subconscious wields the eraser.) The lyrics, though, may paint a different picture than the one I feel from the sounds and this is too important for me to leave just to feel. I am trying to share how I feel (at that point it will be felt) about her.

In my studies of imagination and emotions, I am reading a book now (How Emotions are Made) which points out that we now know that our emotional responses are constructed, that they are not hard wired into our brains. Our previous understanding of emotions was based upon the conjecture that emotions were the result of brain structures we are born with. After all, we are born being able to feel (our senses) and we have apparently a fear of falling hard wired in as newborns. We all seemed to have the same emotions and could recognize when others were feeling them, including being able to identify the emotion from facial expressions. Studies also showed that when exposed brains were subjected to minute electric voltages, memories flooded back as well as emotions. It now appears that the emotional responses that were electrically stimulated were memories of emotional responses. Brain scans show us that when people are feeling an emotion (disgust, joy, whatever) that no brain structures are consistently involved by many people. It now seems that we construct our emotional responses from our feelings and that each of us does it in a slightly different way. This is linked to our ability to imagine, a power mental tool. We don’t really interact with reality as animals do, directly, instead we create a facsimile of the world in our minds and then we can test it to see how it might respond before we act. Our emotions are similarly constructed as our imaginary world is.

But, why did I feel these emotions so powerfully (and still do)? Why did I decide to create such a powerful presence in my inner life, a place that allowed me no advice seeking? (“Ah, a Mystery it is.” Shut up, Yoda!)

I think men and women are quite different in this regard. Before you go off, my general belief with regard to men and women is that we are different, and the same. If we look close enough, we will find differences in physiology, behavior, attitude, whatever, but if we stop to consider the import of those differences, we come up with meh. We are so much alike, the myriad differences aren’t all that important. In this case, though, I find a stark contrast. Consider two young females who have just struck up a tentative friendship. What do they talk about? They talk about themselves, they talk about the other and how they were perceived before they became friends. They talk about their relationships with others, their likes and dislikes. If they are hitting it off, the discussions become more intimate. They share things that were embarrassing, even compromising. If these intimacy tests are passed (new found friend becomes bff), they end up having shared everything about their outer personal selves and they may then go on to share some of their inner selves. I don’t know that they do, it just seems logical. Men, on the other hand, wouldn’t be caught dead sharing such aspects of our lives. We are closer to being emotional cowards in this. We don’t talk about ourselves so much (unless it is to brag or flatter which are status tools), we talk about things. (“Oh, you’re a Chevy guy? I have always been a Ford guy.” “How’s that cordless electric lawn mower working out for you?”) Talk about what goes on in our heads, our fears that we will not be good enough to make the team, keep our job, satisfy our mates…? Over my dead body would I be caught in such a discussion with “the guys.” (I wonder if gay men are different in this respect. One can only hope so.)

In this sense, we are all islands, with our inner lives unknown except by the most intrepid explorers. While I think that “we” should take care of “us” (meaning all of us should take care of all of us politically and personally, e.g. a child in distress needs help, anyone’s), I still think that we have a long way to go before we are pushing the boundaries of what is possible for us. A start would be finding better ways to communicate things that are important.

Oh, and that song I couldn’t remember, the one I was whistling? It came to me about eight hours later. (I noticed the tune was playing in the background of my mind the whole time.) As I am now officially an old fart, I often work hard to remember things I think I should be able to remember. (Got to work out the memory muscles <imagine this said in Arnold Swartzenegger’s voice>.) That song was Memory from the musical Cats. Click. Now, if I only knew what the words were.

Postscript I went to the iTunes store and found the song Memory and downloaded it. After the prologue the song started and my eyes immediately filled with tears. There were words there, I distinctly remember “memory” as one and “moonlight” as another. The rest? Ah well, the work continues.

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August 16, 2017

God and the Imagination

I have been reading a fascinating book lately (Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.) which has already prompted a post and my next three posts will be prompted by ideas read in that very same book. (I recommend that book to you if you are inclined to read philosophy/philosophers.)

This post comes from my response to a statement in Chapter 5: Life without God: Some Personal Costs by Daniel M. Farrell. You can tell from the book title that this is a series of writings by philosophers regarding their lives now that they have given up their god habit (or having never had one). This one is both poignant and informative in that the author was pursuing an avocation as a priest when he lost his belief. At one point he says this:

At this point, though, I want to briefly address the second question above: how might someone try to deal with the decision problems we’re concerned with here without having recourse to help from God, or religion, and what sorts of problems and challenges might he or she face? Begin with the question of how such a person might proceed, leaving difficulties with her procedure until later. Even this is not an easy question, and it would of course be ludicrous to suppose there is only one plausible answer. I can think of one answer, though, that strikes me as not only plausible but also as an answer that might help us with the question of why answers that are not based in some way on belief in God do not work for all of us. This is an answer that tells us to address the questions that concern us here by engaging in a certain kind of imaginative enterprise— by engaging in what we might call “thought experiments” of a certain sort. Specifically, it suggests that we should deal with the relevant questions— about how to arrange or “order” the things we value into some sort of life or life plan— by addressing such questions in a way in which many people in fact actually address them in everyday life: namely, by picturing or imagining one’s life as it might go, if one were to make certain choices over others, and then tentatively settling on the one that feels best.”

Here was someone who was in the habit of consulting his god whenever he had to make any kind of important decision. He commented that he also had more than a few spiritual advisors volunteering to tell him how their god wanted him to decide. (Apparently we can know the mind of God?)

My visceral reaction to this was that an intense religious upbringing was crippling. By offloading his decision-making process onto his religion, he did not develop what I would call a normal decision-making process until he lost his faith and then he was way behind the rest of us in that skill.

Many secular people think that we make most decisions through a concerted intellectual effort. We weigh the pros and cons and then pick the best option from among those we have carefully identified. Uh, … no. This is rarely the case, if ever. This is a fiction we tell ourselves about being rational people. Consider a mundane but important decision: buying a car. If one were to go about it intellectually, one would collect data that was important to us: costs, maintenance, safety statistics, cargo space, features that provide comfort to passengers and driver, etc. Then, … yes, what then? What you find is that one model of car is cheaper but another you are looking at has a higher Consumer Reports rating, while a third gets better gas mileage and has lower maintenance costs. How are these to be played off against one another?  Nobody, absolutely nobody, comes up with a rating system for each of these measures of values important to you. In addition, nobody works out a system by which each feature is rated as to its importance and then weighted as to how it affects the final decision. (Nobody.) I would especially like to see somebody evaluate how the color of the car gets factored in. People react very strongly to the color a car is painted (not the quality of the paint job, just the color). And what affect does the color have on anything of value? (Answer: none … but it does affect us.)

What we really do instead of this laborious, exhausting procedure is use our imaginations. (This is what they are for.) One’s imagination may even be running in the background while we are dabbling at data collecting and sifting. We imagine ourselves in that car, as driver or passenger, and imagine scenarios around that imaginary situation and then check out how it makes us feel. Feel? Yes, feel.

If we are a safety freak, we might imagine the car going into a skid and then you correcting that skid easily and safely. If we are into being noticed, we may imagine driving up at our high school reunion in our new convertible, oozing a picture of “success.” I think you can imagine more of these. (See, it works.) Basically we have to be comfortable “seeing” ourselves in that car doing our ordinary car things. This is what the test drive is for. Surely you do not think you are doing anything like a real test of anything with a test drive? You are trying it on for size and feel.

We learn how to use our imaginations to help us with decisions as we grow up. This is why we daydream of having a new bike (I did.) or some new gewgaw. But, in reality most of this is done sub rosa; we are not even aware of it as it is done subconsciously. Our author was used to praying for “guidance” from his god and seeing how his god “felt” about the situation. If you are like me, you can probably see where this is going. The “guidance” was supplied by his own imagination in the channel he had created for it. When he lost his belief in his god, he also lost this channel of help for making decisions. He had to learn how the rest of us do it.

My second “Aha” moment came right on the heels of realizing that his religious education had partially crippled him was that his imagining faculty, a faculty that I believe distinguishes us as human beings (having a highly developed ability to imagine, not that we are the only one’s who can) … invented his own personal god to consult. Obviously, his education promoted what he ended up imagining, but if you desperately wanted a god to help you, your powers of imagining would help you create that being … in your imagination … including powerful religious experiences, that is feelings, that seal the deal for you.

The irony is that an imaginary god can cripple the use of imagination for mundane purposes.

An Addendum Most of our “important decisions” are probably not that important, they are probably just vexing. Regarding my “career,” the most important decision I anguished over was whether I would teach chemistry in a high school or community college. This is not like deciding whether to be a burger flipper or a brain surgeon or whether to have a dangerous surgery or not. Such decision happen only rarely in our lives. Most decisions are much more mundane. The distinction in my decision between the two options was not exactly big and whichever I decided I could be happy in it (unless I chose not to be). I used to joke that I chose college rather than high school because if I got frustrated I could swear at adults in a college. For all I know, that might have been the deciding factor. More likely it was the fact that it was easier getting qualified to teach in college.

May 30, 2017

If the Universe Is So Vast, Where Is Everybody?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:29 am
Tags: , , ,

The question in the title is a variant of “Are we alone?” Are there other sentient life forms in our galaxy? Enquiring minds want to know.

This post is prompted by a review of a new book (ALIENS: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited and with an introduction by Jim Al-Khalili).  I have not read the book and do not intend to. The reason? The discussion is premature.

One of the powers of human minds is to imagine (possibly the greatest of human powers) but it has a gigantic flaw: garbage in, garbage out. If our imagination has little to no data to work on we come up with quite fallacious outcomes. This is how we got demons and gods and unicorns and leprechauns.

So, what evidence do we have regarding the universe? We have optical and EMR evidence for the existence of billion upon billions of stars in our galaxy and billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe. But realize we have not known this for long. One hundred years ago, we knew that the Milky Way was a manifestation of other stars in our “neighborhood” but we though that that represented the totality our universe, too. We had observed fuzzy spots in those star fields but hadn’t acquired the evidence to recognize them as other galaxies. And while we had speculated that many of those stars would have planets about them, we had no direct evidence that was so until quite recently. The first actual planet circling another star was identified in … wait for it … 1992. So, we have been aware that there are other planets “out there” for all of 25 years. We have subsequently identified hundreds of others.

Do we have any evidence that life exists on those planets? No, but we do not have any evidence that life does not exist either. At this point, we are not yet ready to make those discoveries (although we are close).

The question in the title implies that since there are so many stars, there must also be unbelievably large numbers of planets, and if life is not an isolated accident, or divine bit of magic, occurring here and only here, then where are those other peoples? There is a mistake embedded in this question though, leading to flights of imagination fueled only by fairy dust. The universe is indeed vast, but the primary constituent of our universe is empty space, aka nothing. The next closest star to us is about four light years away from us. To go there to get direct evidence of what exists there, we would have to travel for four years at the speed of light. Since the fastest speed ever achieved by a man-made object is about 25 miles per second, and the speed of light is about 186,000 miles per second, at that speed (as an average), a trip to Alpha Centauri would take a bit under 35,000 years. If we could get their magically and then sent data back to Earth, it would take four years to get here and when it arrived the information would be four years old.

The universe is unimaginably vast, but this is also misleading because it is also vast in time. A civilization could have arisen around Alpha Centauri, to the point that it was capable of building spacecraft capable of very high speeds who could have made the trip in under 20 years, let’s say. But if this occurred 100,000 years ago, there wouldn’t have been anyone here to notice. (That doesn’t stop the imagination, of course, … Ancient Aliens!)

The universe is vast in time as well as space. In order to generate a signal that we could interpret as synthetic instead of natural, that civilization would have to exist within a small radius in space and time. If it is over 100 years out of phase with us now, we wouldn’t have a chance of detecting it. So, 100 years in time is our bubble. How many years has the universe been around? That number is 14,000,000,000 years, roughly. Our “time” as a species capable of detecting another sentient species in our vicinity is therefore about 0.0000025% of the time that has occurred to now. Considering that our spatial bubble is roughly 100 light years wide and the universe is roughly 28,000,000,000 light years wide, we have in out neighborhood, 0.0000012% of the universe’s space. Consequently, we have a combined fraction of the universe’s space and time of  3 x 10–14%. In other words, 99.99999 … 9999% of the universe is outside of our purview, either existing in the past or so far away as to be unattainable.

Something you need to know. Those extra-solar planet hunters … when they “find” evidence of yet another such planet, if that planet is, say, 540 light years away, when the light gets to us it is showing us what was going on 540 years ago. Even if there were a planet with a civilization what could produce radio waves or some such we could detect, that information is 540 years old. What is to say what will happen to us in the next 540 years? Right now our prospects of existing that long do not look good. At the rate we are shitting in our own food bowl, we might not have much of a civilization to be found by aliens.

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