Archive for January, 2011

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Defending (somewhat) Decartes’ Error

January 26, 2011

"Normal Dan" Daniel Liechty

Seeking to doubt all that could be doubted, Rene Descartes (d. 1650) finally decided that while he could even doubt the existence of his own body, he could not doubt the existence of his mind, which was doing the doubting in the first place. His famous phrase, Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am) formed the basis for the dualism of body and mind (with mind in the superior position) which has enjoyed a stubbornly fundamental position in Western philosophy for the past three centuries.

In the recent generation, opposition to this dualism, and especially the prioritizing of “mind-over-matter” it implies, has been voiced from many quarters. One of the strongest of these sources of dissent is from those working in cognitive neuroscience, which dissent might be summarized as “No Brain, No Mind.”  A widely read book representing this perspective is neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book, Descartes’ Error (1994).

My quarrel is not with Damasio–I loved that book, my copy is well worn, and I draw on Damasio’s outline of the case of brain-injured Phineas Gage frequently in class discussions. My quarrel is more with those who have come to intone “Descartes’ error!” dismissively every time a discussion point even hints of mind/body dualism. My sense is that there is yet a baby in that bathwater!

Granted, the avenue in the Euro-western intellectual tradition asserting that the material and the spiritual are qualitatively different entities (and that hence also body/mind (soul, spirit) are also totally different entities has mostly produced an intellectual cul de sac. I say cul de sac rather than “dead end,” not just because it, like Descartes himself, is French, but because in a dead end the road just ends, whereas a cul de sac (at least here in the American heartland) generally designates a circular drive in which, if you remain on it, you end up passing the same houses over and over again. This better describes, in my view, where the Cartesian mind/body dualism has taken us.

But let’s not forget that Descartes himself anything but simple minded, and he already anticipated much of the current criticism of his formulations, even without benefit of modern brain research data. In reading Descartes, even in translation, it is quickly seen that he was a startlingly disciplined phenomenologist of experience. Furthermore, the dualism he described remains a deeply heartfelt, experiential dualism for (I would argue) any fully cognizant and thinking human being. Just consider this fact–the separation of body and mind Descartes described, is simply one way of talking about the experience we all share, of the body becoming an object in the purview of the “symbolic self” (as we might term the mind in current parlance.) This ability of the symbolic self to stand “outside” of the body, view the body as an object, and take control over the body, is a fundamental process of abstract thought, and is solidly embedded in the phenomenological experience of every human being beginning at least as far into childhood as toilet training.

Therefore, while many would agree that elevating the body/mind dualism to the level of metaphysics is problematic (as well for a myriad of reasons not touched on here) we don’t really get very far my shouting “Descartes’ Error!” at every whiff of dualism. As Ernest Becker suggested, we should rather keep well in mind that this is a “heuristic” (experientially descriptive) dualism and not a metaphysical (ontological) dualism. Thus it has its proper place in serious discussion, though it is not the stage on which all serious discussion must take place.

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Fresh from Arizona: Denial of Life

January 7, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

To paraphrase Mark Twain “Reports of the failure of my transplant have been
highly exaggerated”

On the December 18th NYT article “Transplants Cut, Arizona is Challenged by Survivors.

Arizona recently terminated all state support for bone marrow transplants to treat leukaemia, liver transplants for patients with Hepatitis C, and lung transplants. To support ending these rare but expensive procedures the legislature relied on “statistics” provided to them by state government, for example, that 13 out of 14 bone transplants recipients were dead. A state sponsored study (probably a literature review of treatment effectiveness) put more nails in the coffin of these procedures when it concluded that such transplants “do not significantly affect the diseases they are intended to cure.” and that lung transplants are not really intended to save lives but are “more palliative that than curative.” The statistics and the conclusions of authoritative state studies provided what seemed like a simple and reasonable utilitarian calculus that supported ending procedures.

Not so fast.  The American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS) has contradicted the pessimistic pseudo-science justifications for making the cuts. ASTS reported that survival rates for marrow transplants in Arizona were better than the national survival rate of 40% (9 of 14 were, in fact, still alive). Also in the real Arizona (not the one the members of the legislature’s death panel thought they lived in) liver transplants have a 80% survival rate after one year and 60% are still living at 5 years post-procedure. The Society also corroborated the patently obvious fact that lung transplants “are life saving, not palliative” (Begging the question of whether palliative procedures should be rejected out of hand because they may be expensive and delivered to those doomed to die anyway.) James Healy, a 25 year old college student who received a transplant in 2009, should have end-capped the discussion, at least as far as was to be limited to the survival issue alone: “I’ve started school again, and I’m getting out and about. I’ve seen other people go through it, and I’ve gone through it. We’re very much alive.”

Dozens of recipients of state transplants are alive and challenging the basis of the state’s decision. Nonetheless, Governor Brewer continues to cite the 13 out of 14 death rate, a kind of grizzly latter-day, politically motivated body-count reminiscent of those of the Viet Nam War era. She insists that the state had “no other choices.” In other words, this was the final solution. From a Becker perspective it’s interesting to observe toxic leadership denying the reality of life in the surviving transplant recipients to support a decision that will be sure to kill those who need the transplants now, or will need them in the future. When performed by fanatical, doctrinaire, and self-serving extremists, the first casualty of budget cuts is, as in war, the truth. Surely, there are at least a few viable alternatives to the decision that was made. What was the dynamic that twisted the facts in this particular direction? More curiously, what are the dynamics that support not listening to people by considering them already dead. The legislature should have considered the case of Anna Tovar. She received a bone marrow transplant in 2001, which her body rejected, and a stem cell transplant in 2002. She is still alive working in that same state legislature and opposing these draconian cuts. Her transplants weren’t paid for in by the state program.  I guess no one is afraid of losing the vote of the constituency comprised of folks who are about to die unless the state opens its purse for something other than prisons and doling out tax breaks.

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Great Gatsby! Green Lantern!

January 7, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might,
Beware my power… Green Lantern’s light!

Oath for charging a ring on the Power Lantern

There must be something in the ether. Dan Liechty started this blog off with a riff on a Star Trek Next Generation episode. I am introducing myself in these pages by glossing on a comic book super-hero, Green Lantern, who will debut on the big screen this summer. Here’s the URL for a YouTube trailer:

“Blak Lantern,” my username for blogging here is a kind of meme negative image of “Green Lantern”. By the time this post is finished, the graphic sic-if action hero rap, which may appear frivolous, will change into something of a brief cultural critique.

Here’s the quick scoop on Green Lantern. Some of you will recall that Green Lantern lives in the DC Comics world, which is an earth parallel to both the Marvel Comics world, and our own lacklustre world, where super-heroes with infinite power are somewhat rare. The Guardians of the Universe decide to appoint a new Green Lantern to the sector in which Earth is located. The Green Lantern Corps is sort of intergalactic Canadian Mounties, but green not red, and no horses. Allan Scott, a young railroad engineer (circa 1940), who has the distinction of being fearless is offered this cosmic appointment after he performs a heroic life-saving deed. He accepts and becomes one of the thousands of the Green Lantern Corps, who protect the populated sectors of the universe, each one a fearless exemplar of their species. That’s what typifies the Green Lanterns: fearlessness, iron will, and active imagination. Allen wears the infinitely capable Power Ring that emits a transmogrifying green laser-like light that is responsive in shape and intensity to the bearer’s will and imagination. It is refuelled by a Power Lantern that emits a green glow. Unfortunately, the power ring has a yellow shadow: it can’t affect anything that is that yellow, unless the bearer can totally master his fear.

As the comic series progressed over the years, the Guardians choose more humans to become the Green Lantern of this sector of the universe. (Probably a galactic affirmative action program. There are other intelligent species in the sector, after all). In the early 1970s, John Stewart, an unemployed African American architect, became the Green Lantern, making this series one of the first racially integrated ongoing super-hero series.

As the saga progresses, the Green Lantern Corps does battle with the Black Lanterns Corps. The latter are deceased super-individuals (some heroes, some not, more essentially amoral than evil). They are reanimated by their resentment of the living and they are bent on ending all life on earth– but first they must muffle all emotions except fear and hatred.

The Green Lantern hero-system is pretty straightforward and meaningful to the average early teenage male, who probably appreciates the transparency of simple allegory, with its one to one symbolism. Bravery, power, and goodness make us heroes and are green. Green is also the symbolic garb for the Green Arrow, Green Hornet, and J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter, a green super-detective from Mars. My teenage friends and I were sure he was African American and he was being “passed” because the times were more ready for a green hero than a black hero. There was one Superboy edition in which this Martian morphed into an African American and worked on the Kent farm, and was comforted by the young Clark Kent after he was attacked by a racist mob.

Green is historically connected to the green light that flutters in the distance at the end of the dock in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and is one of that novel’s recurrent symbolic motifs:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning –

Like the Green Lantern, Gatsby’s greatness lay in his ability to use imagination and will to make his dreams become realities. Gatsby craved an orgiastic future of unending material wealth that he believed would secure his self-esteem and immortality. Teenage boys are content with just the virtues of goodness, power, fearlessness (and the Nike gear that goes with it), which will undoubted secure their reputation with other guys and win the admiration of foxy chicks. Gatsby’s green light has a darker side. The novel piles up rancid dreams, adulterated with deception and exploitation, and ends in Gatsby’s accidently killing his lover, Molly, by automobile in the “ash heap of the present.” This is followed by the murder-suicide of Gatsby by Molly’s betrayed husband, who was Gatsby’s friend. The future is unbearable “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald is saying the wages of the American dream is this kind of death of meaning in which one despises the present and is inexorably drawn into the fog of the past. The moral universe of the comics is almost as complex although drawn more allegorically than symbolically. The Black Lantern Corps embody death and its reaching out to us in a literal Halloween way, in a universe where the dead aren’t quite dead. The original green “go light” that appeared to permit Gatsby to zoom past his personal history has changed its meaning over the passing decades. Now Green also means sustainable environment, eco-empathy, but like Gatsby and the Green Lanterns, this new Green also will have its alter-ego and shadow. One wonders if we have hero-exemplars ready for the boys and–perhaps more importantly-the girls who will be forging the new green future.

So that gives you a flavor of what I would like to do in these pages. Play around with symbols, look at the darker and the humorous or lighter side of things, as “one likes to recall that  the difference between comic side of things and their cosmic side, depends on one sibilant.” –Nabokov. To further play on Blak, I may have the occasion to comment on issues (and select them) from an African American perspective (my A.A. perspective, anyway). This post only slanted things this way by noting how long it took to get an African American Green Lantern or other black super hero, for that matter. You are wondering, why spell it Blak and not Black? No, it’s not a form of Ebonics. The name “Black Lantern” was already taken in this blog world, so I had to innovate. Even here, going for the odd spelling, I ran into claim stakes. Coke put out a French high-octane beverage “Coca Cola Black” a few years ago complete with an accent.

Are we reaching some kind of cultural singularity where everything imagined has already been done?

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Blessed Mortality? Maybe…

January 7, 2011

"Normal Dan" Daniel Liechty

by “Normal Dan” (Daniel Liechty of Normal IL)

Like all species, human beings are driven by the urge to continue living. We usually call it the survival instinct. But because our species conceptualizes death as finitude, and can think abstractly and symbolically, the urge for continued life quickly morphs into what Ernest Becker saw as the psychological “denial of death” and an urge for symbolic, if not actual immortality. We are literally animated by an heroic struggle against death in all our ventures.

But what if that underlying wish were granted, we were immortal beings and there were no human death? I think it is instructive to at least consider that if there were no death, if our lives just went on and on and on, human life itself would be devalued and soon lose its deepest meaning. Think of all you would like to do in the next 10 years. Now imagine you had 10,000 years to accomplish it, or 10 million. Would we be happy just doing the same things over and over and over again? Sure, we would all probably love a decade or two more than our allotted 3 score and ten. But endless life? Would not life at some point become rather boring and tiresome?

I remember a character in the Star Trek series, the godlike but impish character named Q, who came from an immortal and omnipotent species called the Q-Continuum. He was totally fascinated by the human species because of their need to find meaning in everything. For a long time he couldn’t understand it and would purposely create chaotic situations just to watch Captain Picard and the other humans squirm. I remember as kid spending long hours messing up ant hills with a stick, fascinated to watch the ants run around in confusion and then slowly rebuild the hill. Q was initially something like that, only we humans were his ants. How does the saying go? “Evil is a robust child.”

But as Q got to know Captain Picard and humans better, he recognized that their urge for meaning was not so much a deficit but rather the very thing that made them human, and that furthermore, this urge for meaning stemmed directly from their mortality, the one aspect of being human that Q could not experience. In one memorable episode, Q let Picard experience what life in the Q-Continuum was like–not directly, which would have been impossible, but by creating an illusory world which conveyed at the human level of perception the basic idea. The illusory world Q created to express on the human level what life in the Q-Continuum was like was that of a series of quaint and beautiful little houses in desert environment, in which very beautiful and well-dressed people sit in rocking chairs on the front porches, staring endlessly out across the barren landscape. All their desires and needs are already so totally fulfilled, they are no longer even  aware of having desires or needs. They don’t really speak with each other because they all already know the same things. On first impression life is beautiful, but soon one is overcome with the realization that it is also just plain boring. If I remember correctly, Q actually voluntarily took on mortality at one point just to escape the boredom, an interesting take on the theme of divine incarnation if there ever was one!

The meditation on death in the Reform service book of American Judaism suggests that death and mortality is the “tax” we pay for meaning in life. It is exactly because life is limited that it is precious, sweet, and not to be wasted. I am not advocating some sort of Goth romance with death. I don’t even quite want to say that we should welcome Death. But perhaps we can come to befriend and appreciate our mortality as a blessed state, a gift we have been given. Or at least set that somewhere  ahead of us as a goal for our maturing spirituality.