Sunday, March 29, 2009

Do you have the time?

Time. Do you have time? How much time do you have? Can you have time, hold it in your hand, show it to your friends, admire its sparkle and glare and enduring attractiveness and its unwillingness to be locked down in a neat scientific box, its resistance to being defined and categorized and understood and forgotten about? Can you boast about how much of it you have to your drunken friends at that bar with the beautiful women where time passes all too quickly and extinguishes illusions much as a cold shower extinguishes desire?

Time. Enchanting but hazy, like the fleeting remnants of a charmed dream or the misty outline of the seductive siren painted by an expressionistic painter whose vivid palette was robbed by time itself, leaving nothing but a dull charcoal-gray behind. Do we have enough of it? Have we spent too much of it thinking, dreaming, working, studying, scheming, planning for the tyrannical and terrifying future that is now long behind us, passing us by with nary a nudge or a wink or a suggestive whisper about the imminent arrival of the promised possibilities clinging to its bosom? Have we killed time? Can it be bent, curved, spliced, chopped up into minuscule little quanta carried on the energizing beam of glowing light?

Time. Does it flow like a cold spring in the silent night, steady and unending, grinding down the rocks in its path to the smooth dust-like sediment upon which future events are etched? Does the arrow of time fly faster than the human imagination, competing with cupid’s arrow for the chance to wreak havoc upon the hearts of men? Does the passage of time multiply the possibilities in an endless stream of exponentially proliferating states, or does it expose the futility of idle reverie by a devastating collapse of the wave function like a collapsing bridge exposed to a violent sandstorm in a desert where sanity dictates a bridge should never be built? Will time promote the growth of a flower carefully watered and nursed and lovingly tended but which nobody ever thought to plant? Have I wasted my time, or has time wasted me?

Time. It passes in silence leaving chaos behind. And yet, the knowledge that more of it is to come inspires the greatest achievements known to existence. It provokes bright-eyed hope and eager anticipation for that phantasmal chimera known as the future, something that never arrives but always remains just out of grasp right there in the very near future. It turns wise men foolish and idiots into prophets. It is a never-ending carousel of cavorting horses and colored elephants and bad speakers blaring loud music, turning round and round and round without getting anywhere.

Unless. Unless. Unless the time of time is NOW. Glorious and effervescent and right in front of us in all its florid beauty, this now. Future and past and present are now. I shall seize the moment, for otherwise the “moment” is nothing but a cruel illusion called ......time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cockfights and psychopathic chickens

The biologist David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral among some other popular books, has an interesting and somewhat controversial view on human evolution. He promotes the idea that evolution works on a group scale, and not merely on the scale of each individual organism. As social creatures, group survival may depend on traits that would work against individual survival had that individual been less inclined to seek out a social group to be part of. Dr. Wilson is an entertaining and persuasive speaker, and while his presentation is full of interesting little anecdotes and thought experiments whose outcomes are self-evident, he does manage to make you think about things from a different and sometimes unusual perspective.

Take this thought experiment: two people are stuck on a desert island with no resources, no shelter, no food, no protection from predators, and… no movie theaters or shuls even. One of those people is what we would consider the very embodiment of evil: selfish; cruel; malicious; lacking self-control; and an Aroini to boot. The other is the polar opposite: kind; considerate; caring; selfless; and a disciple of mother Theresa. You leave them for a couple of weeks and then come back to see the result of your sociological experiment. Who would you expect to have survived all the hardships, and who do you think served as a tasty bit of shark food? Right.

Now consider the same experiment, but split between two islands with no means of communication between them. On one island we have a community of evil bastards as above, and on the other we have a community of kind and considerate non-bastards. This time, you leave them there for a generation or two. Which community is more likely to survive and prosper, and which community is likely to quickly collapse with most members serving as food or firewood, with the few survivors remaining in a sorry pre-historic state to boot? Right again. What does this tell us about the forces that drive human evolution and the evolutionary forces continuously shaping the human view of morality?

Now take the psychopathic-chicken experiment. Chickens on an egg-laying farm live in groups -- nine chickens to a crate. In one version of the experiment, researchers selected the most productive chicken from each crate and put nine of those together in a new crate. They then did the same with the offspring of these super-producers, and again with the offspring of those. After six generations, they had a crate of...... 3 super-chickens -- the rest had been murdered by their crate-mates -- and those that were left were continuously fighting and at each other's throats, so much so that their egg-production dropped to a minimum. They had bred a failed chicken society.

How did that happen? Well, it turns out that successful individuals in a community depend on having better access to resources and on the cooperation of other members in the community. They're also good at getting an outsized share of the limited resources available. After a couple of generations, as competition grew fierce and the best producers by necessity grew even fiercer, they had bred a group of psychopathic chickens, worried only about their own needs and quickly killing off anyone in their way. As a result, the society collapsed.

The same experiment was done again, but with a different twist. Instead of selecting for the best individual producers, they selected for the crate which had the best production. After a few generations they had bred a community that was living in excellent harmony (at least as far as chickens are concerned) and producing on average 130% better then the other crates. The selection process chose for the community which was best at sharing the resources in a way that makes most use of it, and the results reflected that efficient organization and produced a successful chicken society.

And so, Wilson argues, instead of the idea of evolution being one that promotes selfishness, fascism and immorality as some detractors argue, it can be argued that the idea of evolution should promote harmony, charity, kindness and even...... religion, with religion being a tremendous force for group cohesion and hence group survival.

This is an interesting argument, but it rubs me the wrong way. I find it a very dangerous thing to argue that since kindness helps along evolution, kindness should therefore be promoted as a value. Evolution is not a moral value; it is simply a statement of fact. Evolution states that those who are good at surviving and reproducing actually survive and reproduce (somewhat self-evident, once you give it some thought); it does NOT say that those (and only those) good at surviving and reproducing SHOULD survive and reproduce. Evolution has nothing to say on how things should be and what behaviors we should value.

We quickly run into huge moral conundrums if we try looking at it in any other way. For example, we have ignored the fact that from an evolutionary perspective, while it is true that moral societies are more likely to survive and reproduce, evil individuals living in those moral societies are even LIKELIER to survive and reproduce. They're still evil assholes, however.

I took up this issue with Wilson, and while I don't think I was as clear as I could be (I had a glass or two of wine at that point) he did agree with me. What he's saying, in short, is that since we do value what we call morality in any case, we might as well use evolutionary thinking to promote that morality. For example, he says that in one of his lectures, when he told the chicken story, one of the faculty members in the university came up to him and said "I have names for these chickens!" When you promote only the best researchers and the individuals with the most voluminous publishing portfolios and put them on the same faculty, they will inevitably behave like the psychopathic chickens. He strongly advocates you always promote the best groups of researchers, people who have shown a propensity and ability to work together efficiently and who will produce good research as a group. And the same goes for all other kinds of community policies.

To this I can only add: Don't be a chicken!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Am I missing something?

"A coed retreat focused on pleasing women joins San Francisco’s sexual underground," says the Times. Not very surprising, is it? What the headline doesn't say, however, is that it joined the "sexual underground" in San Francisco AND...... Orthodox Brooklyn.

"At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short.
"Ms. Cherwitz commutes to New York and offers private sensuality coaching at a satellite outpost operated by One Taste on Grand Street. Many of her clients, she said, are married Orthodox Jewish couples from Brooklyn."
As you can see, the answer to the title of this post appears to be "yes, yes you are."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What Women Want

How do you define 'want'? Can we have enough introspection to know what we truly want? Does our desire for certain possessions and experiences and knowledge have purely neurobiological underpinnings that we are unaware of consciously, and when we do become aware of them we construct post-hoc explanations which sound logical but are really just-so stories we tell ourselves in order to cover up the fact that we are utterly clueless of what compels and motivates us?

Whenever I have this question -- 'What do you want?'-- put to me I readily admit that it is a very difficult one to answer. I can enumerate a long list of my desires, but I'm unsure if that actually answers the damned question. What does a simple list of what I wish for and dream about say about what I truly want? If I want to eat chocolate can I also 'want' to lose weight? If I want to jog every morning is it possible that I want to sleep in? If I want to have varied sexual experiences is it true that I don't want to hurt anyone? Can I want to finish an advanced degree and want more leisure time and want to write on my blog and not want to put in the necessary work and want to tell people "fuck off" and pity them and want to be kind, even while I know all these are clearly contradictory? Is wanting something the same thing as desiring that thing? Is desire the same as obsession?

The field of neuropsychology attempts to answer some of these questions and illuminate how we explain our brain to ourselves, sometimes borrowing heavily from other fields such as conventional psychology, philosophy, sociology and even animal behavior. Studies on stroke patients unable to recognize there is such a thing as a left side nevertheless show they are unconsciously aware of what's going on that side, but being unaware of the reasons they 'know' certain things they construct elaborate tales of why things are as they are and why they say the things they do. These are often illogical and nonsensical to those of us consciously aware of the other side, but it is impossible to persuade them of the fallaciousness of their theories. The HM case also made some fascinating contributions to the field, as did the technology that allows for single-cell neuron imaging in some restricted cases.

However, the inferences are often muddled and the conclusions contradictory. I think nobody is bold enough to claim we can answer these puzzles with any precision as of now. We don't yet know what want is or how it is created or if we are conscious of what we want -- or even if we want what we want. Which is why I think the title of a recent New York Times Magazine piece (What Do Women Want?) that inspired the title of this post (and from where I shamelessly stole the picture) is hackneyed and silly, even while I think the content is intriguing and illuminating of human psychology as a whole. And I would bet the lickerish illustrations accompanying the piece is a consequence of someone betting this is What Men Want. Additionally, the dichotomy of the title of the piece and the keyword used in the name of the web page (see link) also gives us something to ponder. But most interesting is what the article says about human desire and about what we want, and the dichotomy -- or is it? -- between the two.

I should note that this post is entirely a filler for a single word. Now imagine if I tried to write filler for a whole sentence? I'd have to fill a book with fascinating stories before being able to construct the sentence I wanted. Seriously though, I've always found words intriguing in general and I find that word play in particular captivates my attention. And the way words mean different things in different contexts and idioms sometimes don't even make sense is something that is fascinating to observe. (This, too, is being studied in certain branches of neuroscience.) For example, I always fight the urge to answer the question "how are you?" as if it really means what the words imply: with a detailed explanation of the biological molecules and organ systems that explain "how" I am. How else can I be? To me, how something is translates into a question about how it works. Another example: why are dirty pictures called that when in reality the people in them or often at their most clean, having just showered or bathed? And why...... oh, I can go on and on, but I ran out of time.