Hasta la vista

Oh my, I seem to have wandered into some untoward mystic terrain.  From my vantage point in this valley I look up to see several hills surrounding this place with their waters running down to the lake I stand beside.  From the summit to the east comes the waters of Zen and Taoism and a hearty respect for the mystic beyond.  From the west comes Monod and the marvelous biological mysticism I have gleaned from him.  From the north comes the cold, clear waters of Oyama, Thompson, Varela, and others running swiftly over rocky intellect and eroding past mechanistic paradigms.  From the south the warm waters of feeling, communality and art flow down from the springs of Langer, Damasio, Panksepp, de Waal and many others.  Looking down into the clear waters of this lake I am mindful of ancient beginnings, the transformation of planet Earth into Gaia with the upwellng from the spring of life over the past 5 billion years.  At this moment I hold fast to a thread of the Tao.

Consider this Zen koan from The Gateless Gate:  What is your primal face before your parents were born?  As I understand this, there is no understanding this.  The ‘answer’ must be experienced so that enlightenment washes away the categories of this world.  I seem to be, however, too literal minded for such an experience, and instead I am lost in the mystic details Monod laid bare in Chance and Necessity:   “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

What was my primal face before my parents were born?  They were born in 1919 and 1922, so that my grandparents were born say in the late 1800s.  I have no real answer to the koan but it would seem my primal face was inherent in Monod’s “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability” composed from the genetic, developmental and cultural streams flowing through my ancestors.  Also from the fact that these people would meet while engaging in their everyday lives and decide to marry and bear children and that the biological processes carrying their lives forward were of unimaginable detail, e.g., just consider the metabolic processes alone and then add their brains’ carrying forth their minds in time within the world and human culture plus the connectomes of all those people with whom they interact.  Fortuitous? Yes.  Chaotic contingency? Yes. And this is the simplified version.  Better to fall back upon James Joyce’s phrase, “accidental music providentially arranged” and let my primal face rest somewhere in ALL that welter of life.

Evan Thompson characterizes a life as a path created by walking, each step contingent upon all that has come before and current conditions in the surround.  For humans this includes the fluctuating appearance in the human condition.  Thompson, Oyama and the rest of this group argue quite that focusing on the flow of genetic information is inept.  This particular scientific abstraction of gene-centricity loses validity because it misses context.  Focusing on the figure forgetting the ground is a modern vice; it is at the basis of the loss of factual validity in our social discourse and the uncritical acceptance of ugly, mis-shaped and excremental thinking for keen intellect.

Maybe Gregory Bateson’s idea that mind is everywhere in the universe is more than a useful heuristic.  Maybe the Gaia hypothesis should be a guiding light.  We feel and that is the basis of our thinking.  We are the most astonishing herd creatures on our planet; our communality based upon empathy of the highest order (that we know of) and symbolization enables the wealth of individual experience and the ubiquitous social world in which we live.  Still we carry on with the basics of life, and that means exploiting chance possibilities and mitigating the exigencies of the human condition.  50 years ago I read Susanne Langer’s challenge to develop a conception of mind adequate to the reality.  We have made some progress despite the general relegation of her thinking to the background.  We will make deeper progress when more understand the place of art and aesthetics in our lives and minds (or mind).  Non-discursive or presentational symbols, as Langer explicated from the 1940s onward, are a key to understanding how and what we experience and who we are as humans in the herd.

I stand in my valley watching appreciatively the light playing on these summits.  I look down into the waters and feel the ancient past.  Fed by mountain streams and life’s springs this lake overflows with wonder and creates new streams that will flow to the ocean’s shores, creating estuaries where new life abounds.  I usually close by saying travel on, and I know you will do so, but I am going to camp here for awhile.  “On to where?” seems a meaningless question.  The waters here are clear and invigorating and the view spectacular.  I must grow old and seek other figures with their grounds while I may, “a unique and irrefutable witness” to myself.

The word for today: eudaemonia

I have started reading Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s book, The Philosophy of Susanne Langer: Embodied Meaning in Logic, Art and Feeling.  Chaplin’s stated purpose is to help us understand the roots of Langer’s philosophical work, both historically and more importantly her mentors and sources(Henry Sheffer, Ernst Cassirer, Alfred N. Whitehead, & Ludwig Wittgenstein) and the intellectual springs from which she imbibed.  I have worked my way up to Cassirer but I want to present some of the historical reasons, according Chaplin, Langer’s work has not been ‘foregrounded’, as the philosophers of today are wont to say, by those who seek to understand the human mind.

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently bemoan the lack of recognition and follow-up for Langer’s ideas.  Part of that I have attributed to the rise of information sciences and its inept metaphor of the mind as machine, and the rise of genetic sciences and its inept metaphor of life as machine, both of which seem inimical to Langer’s project. Chaplin gives a much more knowledgeable view of what happened.  First and foremost, she was a woman.  She went to Radcliffe in 1916 because Harvard did not admit women (and would not fully until the late 70s).  Though her intellectual abilities were recognized by her mentors, Sheffer and Whitehead, and she went on to write 3 early books that received much acclaim, and she co-founded the Society for Symbolic Logic and edited its journal for awhile, and other prestigious journals published her work and asked her to review works in German, French and Italian, because so few other philosophers were multi-lingual , and she was instrumental in arranging several world conferences of various philosophic matters, she did not obtain a tenured professorship for several decades later in 1954 at age 59, and so she had little opportunity to mentor her own graduate students through their dissertations.  Her first book, The Practice of Philosophy (that is, alas, out of print and hard to find), was recognized as substantial and praised especially by European philosophers.  Her second book, An Introduction to Symbolic Logic, was regarded as an excellent text and the first one of logic in its modern form.  Her third, Philosophy in a New Key, was enormously popular for its genre, selling the most copies of its kind for a long time, and eventually selling over 500,000 copies.  Chaplin quotes a reviewer for New Key, who wrote the publisher, “I am prejudiced against book on philosophy by women; according to this prejudice no woman could write as good a book as she has written”.  That the reviewer mentions his prejudice in his praise highlights the general low regard Langer met for being female.

Another reason, as if another were needed, is that she was continuing, and enlivening a great deal, a tradition emanating primarily from Europe, many proponents of which were Jewish, so that many of her basic ideas were called into question based upon the twin American prejudices against Europe and Jews.  Langer read Cassirer and Wittgenstein very early and interpreted them somewhat differently and now it seems more accurately than other Americans.  Wittgenstein came out of the Vienna Circle, many of whom escaped from fascist Germany to America, only later to be questioned as socialists. Some in the 1950s fell under McCartney’s evil eye. Earlier Harvard denied a visiting professorship to Bertrand Russell because he had opposed WWI (and maybe had socialist tendencies?).  So Langer’s company was suspect by some.

Finally, Langer worked on subjects not generally regarded as mainstream academic philosophy.  She was in some sense, I guess, a reformer.  Logic for her, following her mentor Sheffer, was not a syllogistic proof of a truth, but a method for elucidating forms. Philosophy for her, following early her mentor Whitehead, Wittengenstein and others, was not a footnote on Aristotle and Plato, but a study of symbols and meaning, specifically what it is and how it is made.  Thus she said we understand when we grasp the symbol’s form.

Susanne Knauth married William Langer who became a noted Harvard historian (and who left Langer for a younger woman some years later).  In his autobiography he mentions Susanne as his wife but not that she was an intellectual in her own right.  She was, as were most women, invisible as a mind (and that continues some today, as does the younger woman bit).  Susanne Langer had two children while teaching and writing; she also wrote a book of fairytales for her children, published as The Cruise of Little Dipper and other Fairy Tales, now a rare book. By now you get the idea of how her ideas did not generate the excitement despite their brilliance.

susannelanger

Susanne Langer

Susanne Langer worked then quietly, more behind the scenes than on stage (though she was a popular lecturer), and followed her own path.  Remarkably, her life’s work in philosophy developed along the same course over her career.  Late in life she received an ongoing grant that enabled her to focus exclusively on research and writing.  Reading her work in the past, and now reading books about her and her work, I have come to think of her even more as a scholar who followed her own path to greater understanding and that she enjoyed the journey.  Reading her books (and this is reinforced by reports of her popularity as a lecturer) offers a grand view into her profound and rigorous mind and a delightful glimpse into the joy she experienced in bringing her ideas to fruition.

And that brings us to today’s word: eudaemonia—the joy of flourishing that brings wisdom.  Surely Ms. Langer felt such as that.  Travel on.

The human hippocampus, the dialectic of experience and sacred landscapes

Remember the hippocampus, so important in memory input and recall? (See posts 5/31/16 & 12/24/15)  We know that the hippocampi form and hold maps that code information about spatial locations, experiences and their temporal arrangements, and objects such as food resources, dangers and perhaps most importantly for primates, social objects, i.e., conspecifics. (See posts 5/27/16 & 9/8/14)  Thus, we can recognize or recall a great variety of places, times, activities, and associates.  Now one of my puzzles has been how human hippocampi changed in response to our symbolic capacities.  In rats and dogs, etc., the hippocampi code information pertinent to their umvelt, so each species’ has a different mixture of perceptual data, directions, visual cues, etc. that enable them to move about the material world more effectively.  But what about the human umvelt, where so much of it is created symbolically without regard to any material geography?  Our umvelt comprises several geographies:  earthly terrain, social objects, mental space and mythic cosmology.  How and when did that come about?  See my puzzle?

Reading Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, I found a curious idea relevant to my thinking here.  They see in the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture a curious and relevant development.

They describe a mental ‘articulation’ (a better term, I think, is ‘dialectic’) between the material and conceptual environments.  As Neolithic people developed a culture befitting agriculturalism with its requisite changes in population density and civic organization, they also, as Lewis-Williams and Pearce understand it, developed a different relationship with the land.  Specifically they went from wandering around in perhaps a seasonal pattern dictated by land and climate to the notion of a homeland, and this entailed the firming up of religious landscapes and ritual locations and, much later, boundaries to the land thought of as being under their control.  Likewise, their conceptual environment developed into a cosmology composed of 3 domains, upper (sky and spiritual realm), middle (the land and mundane activities), and lower (a realm especially important for the dead).

Much of their book focuses on the archeological evidence for these 3 realms as seen in the earliest known structures, buildings and art as well as evidence from anthropological studies of more recent shamanistic societies.  The role of a shaman is virtually defined by the ability to traverse these three realms through alterations of consciousness.  Lewis-Williams and Pearce also argue that this ‘spiritual’ power was accompanied by changes in social stratification and authority.  So big changes here, and I would have to say, one change would have to be the inclusion of symbolically constructed domains that were transmitted culturally and still mapped out mentally using the usual neural resources, e.g., the hippocampus and its mnemonic structures. They assert that the dramatic turn in Neolithic peoples was the coupling of religion and land, and further, that the prehistoric structures in the Middle East, e.g., Ain Ghazal and Jericho, and in western Europe, e.g., Stonehenge and Newgrange, were models of their cosmological realms that enabled them to act within and exert more control on their mythos. A lot there to ponder.

While this implies that hippocampal mapping took on these cultural-mythical realms fully maybe 15,000 years ago, I think it is also to be understood that such a cultural development was a long time in the making and I am sure our hippocampal circuits have been essentially in place and stable for much, much longer—maybe from 500,000 years ago.  The salient point remains that our remarkably expansive cultural evolution depended upon our somatic evolution, e.g., the hippocampal circuits.

A final word about this dialectic between the material and conceptual environments.  In a way, Piaget documented this in our ontogeny as children developed their cognitive powers through accommodation and assimilation, i.e., sometimes the mind adjusts its conceptions to meet reality, sometimes understanding reality is adjusted to fit ongoing conceptualizations. (A poor rendition, perhaps, but you get the idea, I hope).  Susanne Langer also saw this dialectic as integral to human intellect (oh the vision of this lady).  Consider these two quotes of hers cited by Innis as he explains her view that our mental life is a symbolic projection:

 

“This symbolic projection is essentially, as we have seen, bipolar.  It is the objectification of feeling, resulting in the ‘building up of a whole objective world of perceptible things’, and the subjectification of nature, which involves ‘the symbolic use of natural forms to envisage feeling, i.e., the endowment of such forms with emotional import, mystical and mythical and moral’” . . . “The dialectic of these two functions is, I think, the process of human experience.”

 

And later from Langer: “So the theory of art is really a prolegomenon to the greater undertaking of constructing a concept of mind adequate to the living actuality.”

 

The adoption of some landscape as home to the sacred involves the objectification of feeling and our deepening attachment to such landscapes is the subjectification of nature.  The dialectic between the two enables the creation of a cosmology over and above (and below) geographical terrain and our incredible hippocampus and associated structures sustained this cosmological mapping in our minds.  With this, the human umvelt and habitus took on its modern form, and since then, we have used art to understand the variegated reality of our total experience and then developed science to control the material realm to fit our conceptualizations.  Travel on.

a new find of humans at higher elevations and a deep biological root

I have found another new report of ancient humans living at higher elevations, 11,000 feet, 47,000 years ago:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/science/humans-high-altitude-ethiopia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

This report adds to some others that I have posted about, e.g. high life in the Andes 12,000 years ago and the Denisovans wandering from the steppes of central Russia to the Himalayas 160,000 years ago, bringing their genes with them, especially the ones that specified a hemoglobin more adapted to the thin air of higher elevations.  Whether it’s highlands, lowlands, hot, cold, tropical, dry, humans have sought to live there and exercising thereby our wondrously flexible adaptive abilities.

I want to focus on one idea Carl Zimmer, the NYT science writer from above, reported.  That is that paleoanthropologists have assumed that humans did not settle at higher elevations until more recently because, I can only guess, of the thin air, sparse vegetation and wildlife for food, severe weather, etc.  This new discovery of early humans at 11,000 feet was made because the researchers ignored those assumptions and looked there. Now they think more efforts will find other sites situated up high—they need only to look.

Davis and Panksepp emphasize in The Emotional Foundations of Personalitythat the 6 basic emotional subcortical systems are ancient with some appearing with the earliest nervous systems and then culminating in their current forms with the evolution of mammals.  These 6 are seeking, play/joy, caring/nurturance (all positive valence) and rage/anger, fear/anxiety, panic/sadness (all negative valence), and the most ancient of these is seeking.

Seeking would seem to me to be a manifestation of a basic life function. If you have followed this blog you may remember that I see 2 such functions that I call Solving the World Problem (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR).  SWP involves finding the necessary resources for life to continue, but more than that, it involves exploiting opportunities (that arise from actions or from chance) and mitigating exigencies (that arise from, you know, just trying to stay alive in a blooming, buzzing, chaotic and at times dangerous world). It makes sense, then, that early nervous systems helped the organism to find its way through to survival, i.e., seeking.

 

Our SEEKING (in all caps following Panksepp’s labeling of major subcortical systems) is a remarkable and powerful system that bears fruit as dopamine flows up to innervate cortical systems and energize activity in intellectual domains.  Jaak Panksepp gives an amazingly detailed, data driven description in chapter 8 of his fabulous text, Affective Neuroscience(I learn more every time I re-read portions—you gotta read this amazing book).  Consider some of his introductory statements:

  • Now we know that ascending DA [dopamine] tracts lie at the heart of powerful, affectively valenced neural systems that allow people and animals to operate smoothly and efficiently in all of their day-to-day pursuits.
  • [DA is] a major contributor to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources . . . . and when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meanings into our lives.
  • Without DA human aspirations remain frozen, as it were, in an endless winter of discontent

Ah, but with a healthy flow of DA we human animals seek out opportunities, tried and true & novel, in our thinking and in our world. Again, after the systems controlling arousal the SEEKING system is the most ancient, and I think that throughout our evolution and during individual development this system has developed into new structures fueled by the flow of dopamine.  These higher structures serve increasingly cognitive functions infusing them with curiosity and an appetite for novelty.

If certain paleoanthropologists had read Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, they would have assumed that humans diversified into every environment because meeting the challenges of seeking resources, internal and external, is a basic instinct, i.e., a deep biological root of our humanity, that finds new expression and fulfillment in human intellect.  That is good news and I will rest here for a moment rather than travel on.

 

 

Forensic science finds ancient crimes, but solving the mystery?

My wife is a big fan of Lin Anderson’s detective novels featuring Rhona MacCleod, forensic scientist; she likes the gritty details of Rhona’s investigations (otherwise she does not like blood or crime or anything like that) and the insight the writer shows into human motivations, behaviors, and relationships.   Now archeologists are using the tools of forensic science to investigate the ancient times.  A report came out a while back that forensic science figured out Otzi, the stone age man whose body was mummified in ice found in the Italian alps 10 years ago, was killed by an arrow in the back 5000 years ago.  His clothes had the blood from 4 other individuals on them and he had other wounds some partially healed and some at time of death. The researchers put together a plausible narrative wherein he had a fight and won, took off to the mountains to escape retribution, and was shot in the back because his assailants did not want to face him again in a fight.  Even then Otzi rolled over and tried to pull the arrow out, a futile task because of the fatal damage done.  It also appears that his enemies ended his life quickly then with some blows. Sounds like a good plot for a novel or script for a movie, eh?

A recent report on PLOS (that’s the Public Library of Science) details the techniques forensic scientists use as they find evidence for interpersonal violence 30,000 years ago:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216718.   This analysis was on a skull found in Romania some time ago.  The researchers examined the skull through CT scans and visual inspection, analyzing the pattern of injuries, whether they had healed or not, whether the bone was still plastic (indicating that the person was alive when injured), and other features.  They also used synthetic skulls to experimentally replicate the pattern of injuries through various means, e.g., blunt force trauma, falling, etc.  They concluded that the skull injuries occurred at the time of death, not before and not after, and that the only probable means for an injury with this pattern was blunt force trauma with a club-like weapon.

Now this person was a modern human, not a Neandertal or other variant, but who knows who killed him.  I tend to think that early tools were developed for hunting, digging, etc., but maybe the first tool was a weapon.  Our biological nature is one wherein we fight for defense and to protect resources from the others, e.g., not of our clan, though culturally this has developed to become violence in the service of aggrandizing power and thus resources, e.g., slaves, land, taxes, etc.  And another motivation, as I posted about on 3/28/19, was to appease the gods and so control the supernatural forces controlling weather and harvests. In this instance Incan priests sacrificed 140 child prisoners and 200 animals in response to, so the primary hypothesis runs, a natural disaster.  This was done around 1400 CE.  It probably did not achieve its desired end, unless that was to bring Spanish conquistadors and priests a few decades later to subjugate the indigenous peoples.  (In a cynical aside, I wonder if our efforts to mitigate climate change are any more effective, at least so far?  Maybe some alien life form will arrive to ‘help’ us?)  But I digress.

Or maybe I don’t.  In my last post on Davis and Panksepp’s Emotional Foundations of PersonalityI presented their idea that 6 basic emotional systems operating in subcortical neural structures underlay, constrain, motivate and flavor our personality structure and cognitions.  They said this succinctly towards the end of the book, “Although we humans are highly cognitive creatures, it is clear that we are not liberated from ancient emotional arousals”.  Amen.  In modern America the availability of guns, these products of our cognitive and technological precision, amplifies through tragic actions the motivations for violence, e.g., turf wars, domestic violence, and now mass murders in the service of what?  Imagined invasions and the incredibly vile and mistaken cognitive efforts to see ‘others’ as dangerous aliens when all reasoned and realistic minds understand the value of these others and cherish their presence in our country.  And even more prescient minds understand that we are all one on one planet.  And our American culture seems to worship guns in ways no other culture or nation does, or has ever done, so that our laws make sure everyone can have as many lethal weapons as they want.  These are not the clubs of 30,000 years ago, nor the arrows of 5000 years ago, nor the ritual sacrificial and horrid killings of 600 years ago, but modern tools of fatal warfare.  After each modern mass murder or once we notice a surge or pattern in individual murders, another ritualized pattern of behavior is enacted to somehow cleanse the nation’s psyche, e.g., thoughts and prayers, affirmations of resilience, etc., and then we are, I can only assume, ‘ready’ for the next instance.

I have begun reading a book recommended by Davis and Panksepp, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Themby Joshua Greene.  So far he has articulated the notion that our evolution has prepared us for resolving conflicts through moral means between an individual and others in his tribe, e.g., through reconciliation or making up, but that part of this development involves serious problems resolving conflicts between tribes.  As I have assumed and said here, we evolved with strengths in intimate and small group relationships.  These were adequate when the human population was sparsely distributed, tribes were small, and resources relatively adequate.  However, as many have noted, with a burgeoning population, large, rather artificially constructed groups called nations, and increasingly inadequate resources, especially water (you know, the basic stuff of life) our evolutionary abilities to relate peacefully and morally are being tested in new ways and are all too often falling short.  This is so even as the overall level of violence on a global scale has fallen, according to Stephen Pinker.

I will continue reading Greene’s book, hoping to learn more about our biological roots and how we can draw upon them to live better with all others.  I will continue to read fine fiction that presents the human condition in clarifying aesthetic light. While forensic tools can detect and clarify the nature of the crime; solving the mystery is another matter.  And I will advocate for the notion that our culture can act upon better impulses—cultures can and do change: gun worship is not intrinsic or necessary to who we are. We are certainly not trapped by our biology to be violent with each other; in fact human nature is just the opposite.  Time to travel on.

Psychologists’ ethics (or lack thereof)

Remember Ted Kaczynski?  I am reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality:  A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approachco-authored by Kenneth L. Davis and the great Jaak Panksepp, who did not live to see its completion but whose work and ideas inspired the effort.  So far it is interesting, a bit wordy and redundant as it argues for a different way of conceptualizing personality based upon the roots of our emotionality in subcortical structures.  The interesting part is when they depart from promoting their approach to actually detailing it in contrast with some previous approaches that struggle to be relevant biologically.

Being a retired clinical psychologist, I used to pay attention to personality theory. Actually, long years ago as an undergraduate English major, I read a book by Theophrastus on Characters, an early effort at understanding personality types.  Anyway, I used several instruments to assay the personalities of some patients, like the MMPI, a long, very long set of yes-no questions which has been used for decades.  The patterns of answers fit into certain personality profiles that were identified through statistical means (factor-analysis) and standardized through several iterations of the test.

Another instrument was the TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test, wherein I would show a patient a series of pictures and ask them to tell me a story about them, the assumption being that their interpretations were projections of their personality, e.g., of how they viewed their world, others in it and themselves. It was helpful.

Now I read in Emotional Foundations of Personality(written in 2018) that the TAT was created by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in the 1930s, and reading a note accompanying the text on my Kindle, that Murray ran a psychology study at Harvard for several years (1969-1972) that Ted Kaczynski (remember the Unabomber finally caught living the primitive life in Montana) participated in. Further, Murray’s study is now understood to have been quite unethical (and no surprise, had some funding links with the CIA).  Jumping Jehosaphat, as my hero Gabby Hayes used to exclaim, I needed to know more. Wikipedia was there for me.

From 1959 to 1962 Murray ran a study that looked at how to break down a person’s mind and control them.  Under the guise of a different experiment (thus the ethical violation of enlisting subjects without informed consent) the researchers would ask the subject about themselves, their lives, values, etc., ostensibly for a neutral purpose, but then use that information to subject them to insults, demeaning their persons, behaviors and values, to understand the effects of such psychologically sadistic behaviors (oh, another unethical behavior).

Ted Kocynski enlisted as a young 18 or 19 year old Harvard student and was subjected to over 200 hours of this ‘protocol’.  It would be enlightening to know how many subjects dropped out early in their participation.  He had been admitted to Harvard as a particularly gifted student in mathematics, described as mostly socially withdrawn, not unfriendly but not socially skilled or outgoing either.  Upon graduation he began to teach college mathematics but quit after 6 or 7 years and disappeared into the wilds of Montana, where he became increasingly alienated, critical and perhaps paranoid of modern society and government, eventually terrorizing the nation with letter bombs.  One of his biographers, drawing from family and friends’ interviews and Kaczynksi’s writings, believes his experience in Murray’s experiment had a profound impact on his mind, attitudes (his personality?) and mental stability.

I have found that psychologists have a mixed reputation amongst the population. When my wife recently told a new acquaintance that I was a retired clinical psychologist, she exclaimed that she would be afraid to talk with me.  Ah, yes, now that I focus on reading her mind, I can see why.  And of course we are not referred to as shrinks for nothing, or actually it is for nothing because ‘shrinks’ really refers to psychiatrists, but that is neither here nor there.

Consider also that two psychologists cooperated with the CIA, not having learned anything from the Henry Murray incident (maybe not knowing about it or seeing that he was not censored, went ahead anyway), to help design the CIA torture mistakenly called ‘enhanced interrogation’.  The American Psychological Association evidently also cooperated with this effort. Oh well, the two psychologists and their company were paid $81 million dollars for this work.  The rest of us received the assurance that the torture was, what?  Psychologically valid?  We know it was not reliable nor ethical nor humane.  Just ask the victims of torture and those victimized by Ted Kaczynski.

I gotta get out of this place, so I will quickly travel on.

I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.