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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dalai Lama, Camp Quest, and the Nones

(CC) Kevin Law,
There are a few things you might be interested to know...

The Dalai Lama recently visited Memphis, Tennessee and was greeted by the mayor, Myron Lowery, with a 'fist bump'. Apparently, this caused a bit of a stir, as some people thought it was disrespectful. However, anyone who knows anything about the Dalai Lama knows that he's a very jovial person. His kind disposition is expected of a Lama, but many are surprised to see how silly and lighthearted he can be. When I first read of the fist bump I knew it would be greeted with a smile and the footage backs that up. The mayor has recently written of the event in a CNN commentary, in which I thought he did a good job of explaining it. Although I'm fond of philosophical Buddhism in many ways, Tibetan Buddhism is not exactly on the secular end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, I've found the books I've read by the Dalai Lama to be insightful and very practical in their approach. He seems to me to be a good example in a lot of ways, and not taking himself too seriously is one of them.

In other news, Camp Quest 2009 is gearing up in Florida. For those that don't know, Camp Quest is a non-religious summer camp for children. They do a lot of the same summer camp style outdoor activities you'd expect, plus a lot of activities that teach about science, reason, and an appreciation of nature. They're currently accepting registration for campers 8-17 years old until November 20, 2009. Families are welcome too. The camp will run from 12/25/09 to 1/1/10. Campers receive three meals a day, a bunk bed in a single gender cabin. The camp will include a field trip to John Pennekamp Underwater State Park, visits to the beach, a short day hike, a canoe trip on a lagoon to see Florida wildlife, celebrate Festivus and New Year's Eve, participate in critical thinking activities and other fun arts and crafts and games. A visit from James Randi, who I've mentioned here at Houston Humanist Examiner before, is also planned. To register or learn more about Camp Quest Florida, see

Speaking of non-religious people, it seems they continue to grow at a rapid rate. The last figures I had seen were for the decade of the 90's, which saw a dramatic increase in the growth of those claiming no religion. The American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 has shown a jump from 8% to 15% of the U.S. population claiming no religion since 2001 (and among 18-29 year olds, the figure is now 22%). In terms of actual behavior and beliefs, the 15% figure is effectively closer to 25%. In other words, some people are identifying by various religions by name only. Not that this huge number are specifically atheist or hostile to religion, the overall attitude is rather "skeptical" of religion. Also surprising is the demographic makeup of the 'Nones'. It's 60/40 male/female, and race, economic status, and ethnicity are much less of a factor than before. Meaning, Nones can be found among all ethnicities, income levels, and races now. I've scanned through the actual study and didn't see any mention of the internet, but the nature of the study was simply to report what 'is' rather than to ruminate on what is causing it. My personal belief is that the birth of the internet is the primary culprit in the secular boom happening in the U.S. Narrow orthodox religious views and dogmas have traditionally been sustained in isolated homogeneous communities, and I don't believe they can be sustained in environments where highly multicultural communication is possible. As I've stated before, I hope the secular boom doesn't leave people in as 'nothings' but rather that they find a spirituality based on the shared concerns and values of humanity. This, because the search for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness is universal.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Natural state of the brain without emotion? Happiness

Closeup. (c) Psychology Press.
In what would seem to validate the Stoic notion of happiness sans 'the passions', an interesting study was published this month by researchers at the University of Iowa. The article, published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, tells of a man "Roger" who almost all of his limbic system (an area of the brain that controls emotion, smell, and long term memory). Roger's limbic system was lost 28 years ago due to an extremely rare case of herpes simplex encephalitis.

Cases of damage to the limbic system have previously shown a loss of long term memory and smell, as Roger experiences, but also effect emotion.

One interesting point here was that Roger, absent his emotional center, nevertheless seems eternally happy. Although his short term brain function and IQ are unaffected (above average) and he can act normally in these cases, holding conversations and so on, Roger rarely complains or worries. His family observes that he seems to have a happier disposition now than before the damage. Oddly, Roger is not a robotic emotionless mind one might expect, but instead laughs and smiles in very natural ways.

Unfortunately, However, Roger's lack of long term memory and other side effects are severe handicaps that requires him to be cared for. But this says interesting things about the role of emotion in the brain, and the natural state of the brain minus the emotional doings of the limbic system. To a large degree, Stoic practice is about learning to condition mental tendencies that we now know to involve the limbic system. The result of Stoic practice is also not a 'robotic' existence, but rather one of "Stoic Joy". In other words, Stoicism is not about the removal of all feelings - just what it calls 'pathos', or mental illness - the overpowering all-consuming passions. What is left is 'eudaimonia' - the content and flourishing life. This, while keeping our long term memories and sense of smell, of course!

Speaking of memory, this reminds me of the Buddhist concept of mindfulness/attention and 'still mind'. Buddhists recognize that much of our anxiety comes from ruminating and dwelling on many various concerns which are not things of the moment, and for which rumination is not productive. Roger's loss of long term memory could be a reason why he doesn't generally experience 'worry'. Through Buddhist mindfulness practice, we learn to put away concerns for which there is no reason to dwell on, and focus on the 'now'. Roger focuses on the 'now' by default. Certainly, we would not wish Roger's condition on anyone, but studying his condition brings further enlightenment to how the brain operates, and comparing this to the role of different spiritual practices might possibly illuminate.

The researchers involved were: Justin S. Feinstein, David Rudrauf, Sahib S. Khalsa, Martin D. Cassell, Joel Bruss, Thomas J. Grabowski, and Daniel Tranel.

Many thanks to Neuroskeptic for writing on this, and to "snailman100" on the International Stoic Forum for alerting me to this item.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our 'temporal profile' is part of who we are

Each piece of this tapestry is a part of one
beautiful whole - just as it should be.
(CC) indichick7,
Thinking more on the topic of mortality, I had an idea I thought I'd share. Einstein taught us that time is a dimension, like height, width, and depth. We can (try to) envision the time-space continuum as a tapestry. If we look at time like one looked at all the other dimensions, events paint a picture (consider timelines or graphs where one axis represents time).

We are taught that we should learn to love ourselves, accept who we are, how we look, and so on. Surely, self improvement is a good thing to work on, but ultimately it is healthy for us to accept who we are and come to terms with it. Well, one of the "ways we are" includes what could be called our "temporal profile". That's a fancy term for how long we live. If we graph out our existence in that grand tapestry of the universe, we have height, width, personality, looks, and a lot of various features that interact with the forms around us. One of those is our longevity.

Some people are short and some are tall, some are dark and some light, some have large green eyes and some have small blue eyes. And - some have a long lifespan and some a shorter one. Just as we might strive to become more physically fit, or to groom our hair, we also strive to extend our life. However, ultimately we have a place in the tapestry - we are one of those little shapes in that four-dimensional time-space construct (see the picture of the tapestry) and it is "just right". It fits alongside all the others and we must have some degree of acceptance, and even appreciation for our place in the tapestry. If any one of those shapes "had its way" it might prefer to be the whole picture, expanding to consume everything around it. But that way lies stagnation and the crushing of variation, diversity, and beauty itself - a death much broader and deeper than our own individual mortality.

So, the concept I wanted to share was that our lifespan could be viewed like our weight, our looks, our personality, and so on - something we healthily accept as a part of who we are, even as we work within reason to improve it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Neuroscientist alters moral judgments

Neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe of Saxelab at
MIT discusses her discoveries.
Rebecca Saxe has discovered a specific location in the brain that is used when we think about other people's minds. By disrupting this region with magnetic waves, she can make it more difficult to see things from other people's point of view, which had the effect in one experiment of changing people's judgments as to the moral blame assigned to one a hypothetical case of accidental murder.

This is not the only revelation in her talk, given for the TED conference. Listen to it very carefully:

[Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other's minds]

I mention her presentation not only because it is fascinating as a matter of brain science, but also because of the hypothetical moral dilemma she uses in her experiment...

Grace and her friend are on a tour of a chemical factory, and they take a break for coffee. Grace's friend asks for some sugar in her coffee. Grace goes to make the coffee, and finds by the coffee a pot containing a white powder which is sugar. But the pot is labeled "deadly poison". So grace thinks that the powder is a deadly poison, and she puts it in her friend's coffee, and her friend drinks the coffee and is fine.

Of course, when asked, no one thought it was 'morally permissible' for Grace to put the powder in the coffee. They asked subjects "how much should Grace be blamed" in this case, which they called a "failed attempt to harm". The blame they assigned to Grace was high.

In another case, the story is the same except for what Grace thinks. In this case, Grace thinks the powder is sugar (and it is). Here, people thought she deserved no blame at all, even though the outcomes were identical.

However, in a third case, which they called "accident", the powder was labeled "sugar" and Grace thought it was sugar, but it was actually poison, and her friend died. In this case, the average amount of blame assigned to Grace was lower than in the case where she thinks sugar is poison and puts it in the coffee, but was (amazingly) still higher than the case where she correctly thinks the powder is sugar.

Saxe goes forward in her talk, to explain how disrupting that special region of the brain made people even more likely to assign blame to Grace in the "accidental" case. In fact, she shows a chart whereby people who displayed more activity in the brain region used to consider other people's thoughts were less likely to assign blame to Grace.

What the talk didn't mention specifically is that there is a right answer - and that is that Grace should receive absolutely no blame whatsoever in the "accident" case. While there is such a thing as negligence and being responsible, in the case of a white powder near the coffee labeled "sugar", one should be expected to assume the powder is indeed sugar. To hold them accountable is to fail to understand what a person knows and does not know, and judge the moral blame of their actions accordingly. In an earlier example in the video she uses a simpler example on children and shows how those below a certain age haven't yet developed the cognitive capacity to understand another's perspective yet. The adult study shows that the false judgment of assigning blame to Grace is due to similar under-utilized brain function. The answer that Grace deserves blame is as objectively incorrect as if they had stated that 2+2=5.

This highlights the shortcomings of ethical systems based on consequentialism. It has seemed to me that systems which really "get" what ethics is all about, refer to the inner motivations of the moral agent as the ultimate measure of moral praiseworthiness or blame. While we can't always know these in pragmatic terms, we can know them about ourselves, and understanding that point has an impact on how we self regulate our own moral behavior such that ends do not justify means (or intent).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hysteria in the heartland

Supporters on both sides of health care
reform argue outside of the town hall
meeting held by Rep. Jan Schakowsky
(AP Photo/Jim Prisching)
Today's editorial is by guest columnist Erik Wiegardt, Director of New Stoa, the online Stoic community...

I quickly tire of the histrionics of angry people. Maybe you do too. Maybe you are already so sick of the brouhaha over American health care reform that you can't bear to read further. I don't blame you. After all, is this a Stoic matter, and why should we be bothered with it?

That's really the point of this editorial. Certainly we can be justified in feeling some responsibility for calming hysteria with reason, that's what we're all about, but do we as a philosophy have clear guidelines as to our responsibility for the physical and financial well-being of others?

It appears that the essence of the conflict is between two fundamental differences of opinion about government itself:

Reagan Republicans, et cetera: Government is the problem; private enterprise is the solution. Health care is not a right. No new taxes!

Obama Democrats, et cetera: Government is the solution, because private enterprise has failed. Health care is a right. New taxes may be necessary.

Who is right and who is wrong in this argument? Shouldn't we be able to use our philosophy to come to a reasonable solution? Does the Stoic motto help: Live in agreement with Nature?

Yes, if we can use our reasoning faculty honestly. It's important to remember that living in agreement with Nature does not mean we live by tooth and claw and survival of the biggest, strongest, and fittest among us. That better describes the other creatures in the forest. No, our unique ability given to us by Nature is not bigger teeth and muscle, but bigger brains. Using reason is our way, or should be our way.

Unfortunately, the very nature of the conflict has a way of inciting passions, especially among those who hate taxes with an inbred fury. This attitude is deep in the American character and has been from the beginning. It was the catalyst that drove the American Revolution more than 200 years ago. The battle cry then was, “Taxation without representation,” but, for those businessmen involved in the Boston Tea Party, it was probably closer to, “No new taxes!” Just look at the names of the two best-organized forces fighting health care reform: the Tea Party Patriots and the Southern California Tax Revolt Coalition.

And, it's not just an American fight. Even UK conservatives are joining their allies across the Pond. According to an editorial in the UK Investors Business Daily (IBD) reported by the BBC (13 Aug 09), "The controlling of medical costs in countries such as Britain through rationing, and the health consequences thereof are legendary," the article said. "The stories of people dying on a waiting list or being denied altogether read like a horror movie script."

The editorial uses physicist Stephen Hawking as an example of what would happen if the US adopted a program similar to the UK National Health Service (NHS), claiming that "people such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless."

Is that true? OMG! Well, no, apparently not. Both UK newspapers, The Guardian and Daily Telegraph, recently quoted Stephen Hawking – who was born, lived, and worked all his life in the UK – as saying, “[I] wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS."

Unfortunately, one of our most cherished freedoms as civilized people, our right to freedom of speech, also allows us the freedom to lie. Washington Post blogger Klein, referring to the IBD editorial said, "It's not just that they didn't know that Stephen Hawking was born in England. It's that the underlying point was wrong, as you'll note from the continued existence of Stephen Hawking. They didn't choose an unfortunate example for an accurate point. They simply lied."

Steve Benen of Washington Monthly joined in the fray. "It's worth emphasizing, for those who remain confused and misled, that Democratic reform proposals would not create a British system. The comparison doesn't even make sense in any substantive way, and the very premise of the IBD attack, which has been widely parroted by the far-right, reflects a fundamental lack of intellectual honesty and seriousness."

And so it goes, charges and counter-charges, and how is one to make sense of it all? Who do we believe? It's no wonder tempers flare.

Gail Collins, Op-ed columnist for the NY Times (13 Aug 09) in “Gunning for Health Care,” wrote,
“The health care protest phenomenon hasn’t been particularly uplifting, unless your idea of decorum is World Extreme Cagefighting. But it has provided a very, very rare opportunity for members of Congress to look semiheroic. Even Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania seemed sympathetic when he was trying to appear to be listening thoughtfully while a constituent told him that God was going to send him to hell.”

Facts may be useful. They often have a way of cutting through the fist-waving and shouting matches. BBC, again, recently offered a valuable comparison of health care systems. It was very well done, but I've condensed the information because it was longer than we need for our purposes here. If interested, go to the BBC news online and look for “Healthcare around the world,” (15 Aug 09).

United States:

  • Private system
  • 15.3% (45.7 million) uninsured
  • Cost per person: $7,290
  • % of Gross Domestic Product (GDP): 16%
  • Life expectancy at birth: 78.1 years
  • Infant mortality/1000 live births: 6.7

United Kingdom:

  • Universal, tax-funded system
  • 100% insured
  • Cost per person: $2,992
  • % of GDP: 8.4%
  • Life expectancy: 79.1 years
  • Infant mortality/1000: 4.8
  • Social insurance system
  • 100% insured
  • Cost per person: $3,601
  • % of GDP: 11%
  • Life expectancy: 81
  • Infant mortality/1000: 3.8

If you didn't actually read these statistics, because such things quickly make you bored, I'll help: Compared to the UK and French healthcare systems, US health care costs more than twice as much per person, is a significantly higher percentage of our annual goods and services, delivers lower life expectancy, and gives us more dead babies. I guess that about sums it up.

Yes, I do think we can look to our philosophy for guidance in such matters. There is no need for the emotional outbursts that result from faulty judgments if we look to the cardinal virtues of Prudence (wisdom) and Justice as our guide. There is no reason for hysteria if we bother to look at facts. Bertrand Russell said that the one with the weakest logical position usually shouts the loudest.

Erik Wiegardt is the founder of the cybercity of New Stoa, and is the Director of New Stoa (, Editor of it's eMagazine, Registry Report (in which this article also appears), Charter member of the Stoic Council, and a Tutor for the College of Stoic Philosophers. He is author of The Path Of The Sage, currently being rewritten, with a condensed and updated version available on the Registry web site that can be downloaded for free. He lives in San Diego, California, where he works full time for the Stoic community.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Adieu to Immortality

In The Fountain, three men are obsessed with
immortality in different ways. (c) 20th Century Fox.
I've recently added an essay to this site, which I wrote for The New Humanism magazine, where it also appears. It is called Adieu to Immortality, and can be read here.