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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine flu, recession, terrorism, & Houston traffic: Connection?,; AP
What do these things have in common: swine flu, the recession, terrorism, the ecology, the red spot on Jupiter, your brain, and yes - Houston traffic? Believe it or not, there is one field that studies them all because they are all basically the same thing: a 'complex system'.

Complexity is a fairly new field that has brought together professionals from a multitude of vastly different disciplines. It seeks to study what are called "complex adaptive systems", which as it turns out, tends to be just about everything that is interesting about the universe. Furthermore, I believe the study of complex systems theory, mathematical and scientific though it may be, is exactly what Heraclitus was referring to in his descriptions of the Divine Fire, and exactly what the Taoists were referring to with their concept of organic pattern or “Li”. And, unlike retrofits where some religious folks sometimes take the latest scientific theories and say, “hey that’s what x is in my religion”, I think that in this case, the thing being discussed by the ancients and that which Complexity addresses really are the same phenomena. So much so, that I consider Complex Systems Theory to be the modern continuation of the Stoic investigation into the nature of the Logos (the animating rational order of the universe - or the unfolding of the 'laws of physics' to put it in more modern terms).

Ok, that paragraph was an eye-full so let's slow down and back up a little.

A complex system is one where you have multiple agents interacting according to their own individual rules and, as a result, this large system operates in a very ornate and even “intelligent” way without orchestration from a top-down hierarchy. Something that is completely orderly is inert and static, and something that is completely chaotic is random and haphazard. But complex systems lie in balance between these two extremes, maintaining an order that is dynamic. Complex systems can even include the ebb and flow of cultural traits and other meme-based intellectual concepts which interact with one another over time.

The fascinating thing about Complexity, and why there can be a single field at all, is that all of these systems operate by the same fundamental principles. It’s all much more mathematical than I as a layman can really appreciate fully, but as these various equations and laws are discovered, we find that they can be applied to both neurons in the brain, as well as organisms in an ecology or corporations in an economy. What this suggests is that Complexity is not merely pointing out analogies, but that all of these manifestations portray an underlying order that governs how matter in our universe organizes itself.

So, now we have this swine flu breaking out all over the place, and you can bet that complexity scientists are taking notes. Here's an example of a paper studying epidemics in terms of complex systems: link. The goal would be that eventually we can use these models to actually help us do things, like hindering the spread of diseases.

And then we have the threat of terrorism. Terrorist cells are decentralized, independent, and often operate without a top-down hierarchy - yet, networks of information, supplies, and funds move throughout them. Sound familiar? Understanding complex systems can help us understand the behavior of Terrorist movements and hopefully disrupt them in clever ways.

What about the stock market? Again, that environment is a complex system, as is all of the economy. Here is a paper that came out in 2008 looking at patterns that emerge preceding recessions: link.

We Houstonians are well aware of the traffic issue, as I'm sure a lot of folks are around the country. Well, it seems there are complexity studies looking into the possibility of self setting traffic lights to optimize traffic flow, the best ways to handle mass numbers of cars in an open area [link] (like getting out of the parking lot of Reliant Stadium), and of course, dealing with highway congestion such as around 610 and 290. Here's a book on the Physics of Traffic: link.

There are even religious implications for our literal Creationist friends out there. I can't tell you how many times I've heard it exclaimed that evolution of various organisms and tissues is impossible due to their complexity. However, learning about complex systems theory has really helped to understand how these sorts of things can happen - and fairly easily. A good way to get a conceptual handle on how complex systems can spontaneously arise from a few very simple components, is by playing around with Conway's game of life.

In fact, Complexity science is now having an impact not only in multiple previously unrelated scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, and economics, but also in several new business and corporate concepts. Some people think this is all about math and science, and don’t see the enormous philosophic implications of what’s actually being addressed here. Consider the following, from Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos by Mitchell M. Waldrop (from which I have been paraphrasing, and by the way, will change the way you look at the universe):

“I’m of the school of thought that life and organization are inexorable,” he says, “just as inexorable as the increase in entropy. They just seem more fluky because they proceed in fits and starts, and they build on themselves. Life is a reflection of a more general phenomenon that I’d like to believe is described by some counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics – some law that would describe the tendency of matter to organize itself, and that would predict the general properties of organization we’d expect to see in the universe.” (bold mine)

Now, when we consider the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who originated the concept of the Divine Fire, he tells us of a process that never rests; an everliving fire in an unceasing process of eternal flux. In his observations of nature, he speaks of the way upwards (order/peace/harmony) and the way downwards (entropy/chaos/disorder). Paradoxically, the everliving fire which creates this flux also secures its stability. This eternal exchange is the same for both microcosm and macrocosm alike (layers of organization).

Nearly every feature of complex systems is spoken of by Heraclitus and I find it impossible not to think that Heraclitus was observing the very same sort of activity in Nature that Complexity scientists study today, although not as nearly refined or informed. Even his famous statement that one cannot step twice into the same river, is essentially a description of Autopoiesis (a process where some complex systems are constantly remaking themselves with new material, while keeping the same form - this is what the red spot on Jupiter does, by the way).

This everliving fire, the creative force in the universe, seems to me to a description of what Complexity scientists call the counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics. The Taoist 'Li', or organic form, are those structures in nature which the artist thinks about in his compositions, and of which we all appreciate the beauty. These are forms that are not completely orderly but you know them when you see them. They have an order to them and include cloud formations, and the structures and tissues of living creatures. This is how the Taoists described 'Li'.

A couple of years ago, I got to looking into the Taoist Chuang-Tzu for a very specific reason. I was trying to think of just how these incredibly interesting notions of Complexity can or should play a role in our approach to life. So, since Complexity seems to be the modern incarnation of the Logos (and in some ways the Tao), then I wondered how knowledge of the Tao in Taoism lead to conclusions of how we live our daily lives. Chuang-Tzu addressed this very issue.

After making some notes on it, I came to see that the arguments he makes for how we approach life, based on some aspects of Taoism, hold up quite well and, incidentally, are incredibly Stoic in nature. Most fascinating though, I found that they DO indeed apply in connecting Complexity-based perspectives to our approach to life, just as I had suspected. I need to explore this further, and it's too intricate to go into here, but it has to do with perspectives on things, and where we place value and focus.

The ancient Stoics segmented the philosophy into 'Physics' (how nature works), 'Logic' (how to handle ideas and reason out conclusions), and 'Ethics' (how we are to live, based on those things). For modern Stoics, it is my belief that Complexity Theory is the Physics branch of Stoicism.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Torture: what's the answer?

CC Matthew Bradley,
Last week President Obama spoke before employees of the CIA [video] and touched upon the current controversies regarding certain interrogation techniques, namely the matter of torture. In noting his decision to release the memos on the past use of waterboarding - the Office of Legal Council (OLC) memos - Obama said this:

"I believe that our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values..."

Values, of course, are what we are interested in here, so let's talk about torture, and consult a little ancient philosophy along the way.

Part of the question centers on whether or not waterboarding is torture. Two days after his inauguration, President Obama issued executive order 13491 which restricted the CIA to the same standards of prisoner treatment outlined in the Army Field Manual 2 22.3 and the Geneva Conventions. By those standards, waterboarding is torture. But even before George W. Bush's administration in 1988, the U.S. is had signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which defines torture in Article 1.1 as:

"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession..."

[explore further: see PBS' FAQ on torture]

Not only do these definitions clearly include waterboarding, but the United States tried and executed Japanese personnel after World War II for war crimes, specifically including waterboarding. This poignant point so clearly marks the distance we have strayed as a nation, that when Paul Begala made it to the normally talkative Ari Fleischer on CNN, it produced one of the longest and most uncomfortable silences in cable news this week [see the video, namely beginning at 3:00 minutes].

That being said, I'm going to proceed with the position that waterboarding is torture - period. What's worse is that documents so far destroyed by the CIA may have contained even harsher methods. So, the key question is: should we torture and, if so, how much?

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that he 'played a role' in deciding whether to waterboard and that he didn't think it went too far. He noted that 'the results speak for themselves' and that it was effective. His daughter and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney defended him recently in a somewhat combative interview on MSNBC. Again, hitting on the 'ends over means' angle, she wondered if anyone had reviewed the effectiveness of the program before releasing information on the techniques used.

On the matter of whether or not waterboarding was torture, she answered in part by pointing out that we perform many of these techniques on our own people (referring to those we train to endure such treatment if captured). People such as former Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin and columnist/writer Christopher Hitchens have both subjected themselves to a form of waterboarding resulting in opposite conclusions.

Many of us remember Admiral James Stockdale from his bid for office as Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 U.S. presidential race. At the time, those who hadn't already heard of him were learning about how he had been taken prisoner during the Vietnamese War in 1965, and about how he had relied on Stoic philosophy to cope with the torture and captivity. Stoicism is something that I have become a follower of for unrelated reasons, and a big part of the writing I do in the future will look at what it has to offer us all.

While the Stoics do not claim we can avoid physical suffering, what Stoicism can provide is relief from mental anguish. For instance, you might imagine yourself lying on a bed being cut upon. In one case this might be the result of torture and in another, a necessary medical procedure to which you assented. While both could conceivably result in similar physical pain and outcomes, the torture is by far a worse experience due to our knowledge and judgments about the situations. I think most people would appreciate the difference between the experience in controlled circumstances with an aware subject and the situation in a true interrogation context - even were all of the physical actions identical.

Liz Cheney also seems to believe that our measure of behavior should be based on the al-Qaeda training manual when she criticizes 'this idea that somehow al-Qaeda abides by the Geneva Conventions' - as if our commitment to the standards of the Geneva Conventions were contingent upon enemy behavior. The point is not who al-Qaeda is - it is who we are. People often say, "the enemy doesn't care, they do a lot worse" and that's just as it should be. The reason they are our enemy is because "they are a lot worse". May we all shun the day when that complaint can no longer be made. Liz Cheney nears the end of this display of her astoundingly misguided value system by saying "It's very important for us to take a step back from the emotion of this". Ironically, it is the position that seeks to torture when under danger because its seen as 'effective' and because our enemies will do the same to us that is the emotional position. That emotion, by the way, is fear.

But has torture even been effective?

Former CIA officer Bob Baer said recently on several outlets that torture has never worked, which is why even the Israelis (under a great deal more threat than ourselves) don't torture. He said that most of the CIA agrees on this and that the singular 'ticking time bomb' scenario often used to argue for torture is outlandish, nearly impossible, and has not been shown to have happened. I believe Baer's position to have been (and still be) the overall professional consensus on torture for some time. Subjects will say what they think the torturer wants to hear, and the information is unreliable. He also notes that if a single case of this being directly responsible for the saving of lives had existed, it would have come to light by now to defend those responsible.

In any case, I think whether its Liz Cheney suggesting it was effective or Bob Baer saying it isn't, both sides are off base. This approach comes out of a shallow version of consequentialism - which is unfortunately very rampant in Western ethical thought these days. Consequentialism judges the moral value of actions by their results. However, this way of thinking about ethics has several shortcomings. It can result in unfairly blaming people for results beyond their choice or control. In this case, it has resulted in an 'ends justifies the means' value system. On the whole, it comes out of the delusion that we have more control than we actually do in manipulating world events and our environment to ensure 'good results'.

Instead, philosophies such as Buddhism look at inner motivation, personal virtues, and character development. This is seen as the path to happiness in life. The Stoics too saw the link, stating that virtue alone is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. Stoics knew that the results of our attempts are not truly within our control, but that our choices and values are. So they didn't focus on consequentialism, but on building virtue of character - on our inner motivations.

The world is a scary and unpredictable place. The United States has been in a constant effort to gain more and more control over the globe as a means of making itself feel safe. But this is a fool's errand - it's like chasing a rainbow because that kind of control is impossible. So, as we travel further and further down that path, we find ourselves less happy and even less safe as a result. Instead, as the Buddha and as the Stoic Epictetus would advise, we should focus on being virtuous first, because that is something we can control.

It doesn't matter how effective or ineffective torture is. The question itself is vulgar. Consider why targeting soldiers in war versus targeting busloads of children must be kept categorically separate, regardless of the cause or the ends. It doesn't have to do with the fact that the children are innocent. Innocent children die in legitimate war actions too, but it is unintentional. The allied soldiers in WWII fighting against Nazi and Imperial Japan attacks were innocent too, yet they were legitimate war targets - so innocence isn't the point when it comes to terrorism. The point is this: a standard that accepts terrorism is a lower one that has a big impact on what kind of people we become and what kind of world we live in.

This is why terrorism is bad and, ironically, terrorism is the very thing involved in the hypothetical "ticking time bomb" scenario which seeks to justify torture. A world full of human beings who see terrorism as a legitimate war tactic is a darker world that we can't allow. If torture is ok then so is terrorism, they are both just tactics working toward an end. Will we eventually be debating about how effective terrorism is so that we might entertain using it ourselves?

What matters is, what kind of people we wish to be. What kind of 'national character' do we wish to build, and are we willing to do the hard work and pay the price for being that kind of people?

The Buddhist notion of cause and effect recognizes that when we perform certain acts they have an effect on us besides the mere consequences of the act. They shape us, form our character, and make us who we are when it comes time to make future decisions. This works the same for a nation as it does a person.

Let's not overlook the role of mass media in directing our attentions and effecting the relative weight we give to threats. Three thousand died in the 9/11 attacks, certainly a tragedy that should not be minimized, but tens of thousands die each and every year in the U.S. alone from automobile accidents. This is a sacrifice we make, not for our principles of decency or even for our freedom, but for convenience of travel. So, let's make sure we are looking at this without being alarmist or disproportionate. Are we willing to sacrifice who we wish to be as a people and risk our own freedoms out of a frenzied response to only those deaths to which the media have called our attention?

[Go deeper: "Debating Torture"]

I was disappointed to learn of a recent poll in which almost half of Americans say that torture may be justified in certain circumstances. At some point we need to ask the question, in defending the United States as a nation, just what are we protecting?

In his CIA presentation, Obama also noted that al-Qaeda is not constrained by a constitution, and how that makes their job harder. He rejected the notion that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive, adding:

"What makes the United States special... is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it's hard; not just when it's easy."

We've already determined as Americans that some values and principles are worth fighting for, and worth dying for. Being the kind of people that don't torture is a worthy value so why should we so easily run in fear at the prospect that principle may cost us lives? Since when has being a noble and good people not been worth that sacrifice? In his position, Obama can't tell you this as such, but I can: lives are worth risking or even losing for certain principles - not being torturers is a principle too.

U.N. representative Manfred Nowak has said that the U.S. is obligated under the U.N. Convention against torture to prosecute Bush administration lawyers involved in policies approving these interrogation techniques. However, I hope we won't get too much into this sort of thing. I believe we shouldn't prosecute Bush administration officials for the same reason I support a moratorium on capital punishment - our system is so convoluted with conflicts of interest and inefficiencies right now that accuracy, fairness, and justice are not even close to being assured. When these matters get going, they become very political, with many people getting involved simply to bring down their political opponents regardless of the facts or principles involved. More importantly, it focuses our national energies and attention in places they should not be: on divisiveness, on retribution, and on the past. What's important now is that we find our moral bearings and move forward a better nation for it.

As for the question of torture, we are at a crossroads and we must decide who will be in control of our actions; our enemies or ourselves.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why do my beliefs not match my religion?

These days I'm meeting more and more people who, when asked what religion they belong to, will say one thing; but when asked what they really believe and what they really live by, will describe something else. Many of those beliefs turn out to be quite different than you'd expect in a Texas city, but then Houston has always been a bit of a multicultural island here in the south.

One of my earliest experiences of this was a couple I met through my local Humanist organization. They came from Russia to live here in Houston, and said they were Catholics. Their attendance at a Humanist meeting, apparently in full agreement with Humanism, confused me so they clarified. They described how their family has always been Catholic and that has become a part of their culture; their identity. They were actually shocked when they came to the United States and spoke with other Catholics, saying, "wow, you people really believe this stuff!"

But it's not just foreigners. It's happening with multi-generational Americans. Once a friend of mine took an online test to see what religion he most closely matched. My friend is Hispanic with a long tradition of Catholicism in his family, yet he came up on the test with the beliefs of a Unitarian (basically Humanist). That wasn't the surprise, however. The surprise was his reaction. In my naivety, I expected him to have an epiphany and begin looking into Unitarianism. But he simply said, "yeah I know, I don't believe most of that stuff but I'm still a Catholic". At the time I was baffled.

Most of us by now have seen the many articles and statistics about the sharp decline of self-professing Christians in the U.S. and the sharp increase in those professing "no religion" over the past two decades. President Obama, has begun to mention "those of no faith" in the same breath with the other religions and even mentioned humanists in a recent speech - this, no doubt, an acknowledgment of America's rapidly changing demographics. Newsweek published an article earlier this month boldly titled "The End of Christian America". Oddly, none of the articles I've seen have made the very obvious connection of these statistics to the rise of the internet. It used to be that a person growing up in a small town would only see and talk to those around him or her, who often belonged to the same churches in pretty much the same belief systems and perspectives. This would be the case even in our isolated sub-cultures here in Houston. But, with the opportunity of young people to speak with people all over the world and see a wider variety of opinions, it becomes harder to see the traditional faith of our families as necessarily the "one truth".

But I'm not really talking about the changing demographics in America, rather something I think is a little more interesting. I'm talking about the demographics that aren't changing - at least on paper. More importantly, what are those self-identifying Christians really believing, and is that anything like what their grandparents would have called Christianity? I think if we took this into account, we'd find the religious landscape is changing even more than we think.

As I write, the Christian survey and research organization The Barna Group has a lead article on its recent findings that most Americans do not believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit exist (recall the recent infamous 'Blasphemy Challenge' that circulated the web beginning in late 2006, in which the Rational Response Squad claimed the books of Mark 3:28-29 and Matthew 12:30-32 meant that denying the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin). Barna claims that, even just among self-proclaimed Christians, that a full quarter of them descibe God in ways that are inconsistent with Christian teachings, such as "the realization of human potential" for example. Incredibly, more than one fifth of Christians do not even believe that Jesus Christ was perfect and without sin.

After my own incredibly difficult coming out to my religiously conservative family about my beliefs several years ago, I am no longer naive on the topic. I can fully understand how it is so much easier not to rock the boat. Your family, extended family, friends all go to church, engage in the various rituals of your traditional religion, have celebrations and feasts, and so on. So we end up practicing "cultural Judaism" and become "cultural Christians", and "cultural Muslims".

From what I've been able to tell, beliefs about the supernatural and the afterlife are tending to loosen up across the spectrum - not just among Christians, but all Americans. There is more of a willingness to live and let live, rather than insisting our beliefs are the only "way, the truth, and the life". The beliefs are becoming more generalized as a "higher power" or a "greater good". And, of course, there is a mix of New Age, pseudoscience, and other influences making their way into the collective consciousness. This seems to be happening to a surprising degree even here in the south. In Houston, there has been a rise in the membership of non-theistic local organizations like the Humanists of Houston, the Houston Church of Freethought, and other groups.

My concern is that as more people begin to shift in their beliefs, they will become lost. Traditionally, our source of meaning, the basis of our ethics, our sense of self worth, and the stable values on which we built our lives have been intricately entangled with our religions and their various supernatural worldviews. But if those are no longer in place for people such as the cultural Christians arising in America, then it won't be long before they realize that traditional rituals alone won't be enough to save them and their families from the barren meaningless landscape of Wal-marts, iPods, and materialism plaguing our society. People need spiritual values, but when they're no longer buying into the mythology, then how can we begin to plant our feet firmly on something that will help us find value and meaning in life and guide us on "how best to live"? These are issues I hope to explore more in the future here as your Houston Humanist Examiner. Please subscribe and check back here for more exploration, where we'll be looking into some possible treasures for living, from ancient philosophy to modern science.