Monday, April 26, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Nine

Emotional Reasoning

What I have been trying to point out with my brief discussion of both faith and honour is that humanity has in the past shown itself able to overcome debilitating emotions through the institutional development of a specific type of collective thought process, namely “faith” and “honour”. I would suggest that if humanity is going to deal with the tremendous problems that we are going to face in the next few generations we are going to have to develop something like faith or honour to do so. I not only believe that there is historical evidence for this thesis, I believe that modern psychology actually suggests why this is so.

One of the iconic images that modern people have from popular literature is that of the android---a thinking machine totally devoid of all emotion and because of this lack, super intelligent. This trope is based on a popular assumption that dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers, that the emotions are an impediment to reasoning. As the modern science of cybernetics and brain physiology have advanced, however, researchers have come to the rather startling conclusion that rather than being an impediment to reasoning, emotions are absolutely essential!

The point that has been realised is that thinking always has to take place in a context. That is to say we do not think as isolated thoughts hovering in some sort of ether. Instead, we think as physical bodies with an individual past history in a specific society. Our bodies are a field on which all sorts of hormonal drives take place---sexual attraction, pain, hunger, fear, etc. Beyond these hormonal imputs, we also exist as beings with a personal history where previous thoughts and actions have implications for our present thoughts and actions. In addition, we exist as human beings in a social context where the past thoughts and actions of other human beings manifest themselves in the culture that we use to make sense of our environment. These three elements of consciousness are essential to the prioritization of our behaviour.

A few moments reflection on our shared experience as human beings should make this obvious. The medieval French philosopher Jean Buridan is credited with posing the following thought experiment. Suppose a hungry donkey is positioned exactly the same distance from two completely identitical piles of hay. He has to decide which one to eat from, but because both seem exactly the same, he doesn't know which one to go towards. If he were forced to make a totally “rational” choice, as long as there was no reason to chose one pile over another, it seems that the donkey is doomed to starve. Lest this seem like a somewhat absurd and contrived example, consider the odd time when we say that a human being is “stuck on the horns of a dilemma”. We have all found ourselves in a situation where two competing points of view have confronted us which it has seemed impossible to choose between. The only mature, rational choice is often to simply “go with our instincts” and accept the consequences. Indeed, the popular expression is “go with your guts” which would seem to indicate that the ultimate arbitraitor is not our higher reason, but rather our hormonal system.

And this is the point that the people who study artificial intelligence have twigged onto. Reason doesn't just consist of a truth-functional calculus that considers the validity of an argument form. Nor does set theory or scientific induction exhaust all the mechanisms of thought. There also needs to be a mechanism for ordering a hierarchy of decisions. And medical practice seems to support this point of view. People who have had lesions in the brain that affect the ability to feel emotions tend to have a terrible time making up their minds. Take away a man's feelings and he doesn't become a super-smart Commander Data (from “Star Trek”), but instead he becomes a two-legged Buridan's Ass who is incapable of deciding what to have for lunch.

Another example that illustrates this insight should come from a few moments reflection about what happens when we are romantically attracted to someone. Physical attraction contracts our field of vision. (I once knew a woman who was so attractive that she had actually caused a traffic accident when walking down the street because a man in a car forgot that he was driving!) In my own case, for example, one afternoon before work I once struck up a conversation with a very attractive woman. I was so fixated on her that I totally forgot about the time and when I remembered, I was forty minutes late for work. In effect, my sexual instinct totally over-rode my normal decision-making hierarchy and deprioritized the necessity of getting to work on time. (I think it was one of only two or three times I have been late in 23 years at that job!)1

People prioritize their thoughts not only due to obvious hormonal reactions (sexual attraction, fear, etc), but also as a result of their past history. People who have had traumatic childhoods, for example, often have innappropriately powerful emotional responses that seem to be “hard wired” into their consciousness. Someone might become, for example, very fearful in situations that people with more pleasant backgrounds might not even notice as being anything but normal. The fear response is itself hormonal, a product of natural selection. But the extra-ordinary heightened response is a learned product of a particular person's past history. If the trauma happened while the brain of the child was still growing, it may have affected the way his or her brain developed. In any case, the example of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder shows that even in adults---who presumably entered into battle with fully developed nervous systems---trauma can lead to permanent change in our hormonal responses, such as fear.

The third element that sets our intellectual hierarchy is cultural. And that is the realm where faith and honour come into play. Societies develop institutions---such as a Benedictine abbey or regiment---where specific practices are developed that change the hierarchy of values for their members. Men learn to overcome their annoyance over brother monk's bad breath and annoying eccentricities in order to create beautiful music and well-ordered farms. Soldiers learn to worry more about the opinion of their brothers-in-arms than the ordinance that can turn them into hamburger. In effect, the good of the group becomes more important than that of the individual. And this re-arrangement of priorities allows the institution (e.g. the abbey or regiment) to continue to function even though it asks from its members things that are usually considered “unnatural” or “against human nature”.

I doubt if any time soon humanity is going to be able to find a physiological way of reprioritizing the values of society in a way that will allow humanity to overcome the damage that comes from despair over impending environmental catastrophe. That leaves us with the sociological options. We need to either re-discover some form of faith or honour that will support us, or find some sort of equivalent thought structure.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Faith and the Dao

I've devoted a significant amount of my adult life (actually most of it) to working actively to try and prevent things like global warming. Recently I've had to accept that not only is it too late to prevent climate change, it seems clear that the majority of citizens will not take it seriously until we are in the midst of a catastrophe. This means that it is almost impossible for the government to take serious action because if they do, they will replaced in office by some glib moron who is happy to pander to people's wilful ignorance.

The problem confronting me is the extinction of plant and animal species that I believe are remarkably beautiful and have every right to continue to exist for millennia to come. It is also the needless suffering and pain that will be inflicted on billions of people because of drought, flooding, starvation and disease. Contemplating the reality that faces the immediate future of humanity puts me in the same sort of place that used to confront people who were described as having a "crisis of faith".

I've always had a hard time with the notion of "faith". Ultimately, no matter how it was described to me, it seemed to boil down to believing in something that you have a very strong reason to think isn't true. People come up with all sorts of arguments to say why we should do this, but it strikes me that the "leap of faith" in practical terms comes down to people who enjoy something else more than they respect the truth.

The Christians I've met seemed to have faith based predominately on sheer stupidity. Most of them seemed to just have never thought about the issues that would undermine their belief system. But underlying that ignorance I suspect there was for many a deep layer of wilful blindness. They simply had too much of a stake in the Church experience to put any effort into something that would undermine it.

The Buddhists I've met were somewhat different. But it struck me that their faith in things like karma and the illusoriness of life turned out to justify an even more comfortable existence than the Christians. At least Christianity preaches charity and a great many Christians of all stripes do get out and do good work. In contrast, most Buddhists reduce their entire charitable engagement with the world to the single act of teaching meditation. This makes sense in that if you believe that there is nothing but mind, then training the mind is all that is necessary. The result, though, is that most Buddhists tend to not do much of anything at all to make the world a better place. (Of course, this also means that they also don't tend to do anything to make the world a worse place, either. That is no mean feat when you consider the insanity that organized Christianity foists upon the planet.)

Neither one of these types of faith make a lot of sense to me, which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to my sense of equanimity. I don't want to walk around obsessing about how the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. But neither do I want to shut off my reasoning facility in order to believe the comforting lie that somehow it is either just an illusion or that at the very end Jesus Christ will make it "all better" through some sort of massive bending of the laws of nature.

The only solution that I've come up with is a Daoist one. I just have to accept that even though it might look like people have the ability to change their behaviour and save the planet, the actual fact is that they can't. People are part of the Dao, and the way the Dao of the Earth is working itself out, people need to create an environmental catastrophe that will shock human civilization into making significant changes. It is sad that in the process many beautiful and wonderful species like monarch butterflies and Siberian tigers will go extinct. It is also sad that millions will drown and starve as Bangladesh subsides under the ocean. But "Heaven and Earth are not kind, they treat people like straw-dogs". The dinosaurs are dead and gone, incinerated by an asteroid. And the peoples of Akkadia and Sumer too are long gone, their people butchered by invading armies.

The source of my sad emotions is the delusion that human consciousness and rationality somehow trumps the machinations of forces that have existed from time immemorial.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Environmental Vow: Part Eight


In parallel with the religious faith that sustain people like the Benedictines, there is a second, factor that has also served to motivate people: honour.

Most people are absolutely terrified of being wounded or dying. Yet for as long as religion has been breeding saints who overcome their frailties through faith, the military has also been able to create heros who do much the same thing out of a sense of honour . Indeed, if you look at the historical record, the ability to inculcate a sense of honour in a nation's soldiers has often been the strongest indicator of military success. In the age of black powder armies, for example, battle usually consisted of two armies walking very close to each other and blasting away until one side lost its nerve and ran away. The question is, why didn't the soldiers always immediately funk-out and run? The secret wasn't any fear of being caught and executed (18th century armies all suffered huge desertion rates---but that was usually between battles, not during them), but rather because of morale or esprit de corps. That is, the officers discovered that through a certain type of training the soldiers in their armies could so identify with the regiment that they would be more concerned about besmirching its honour than losing their life.

This rearrangement of priorities did not only apply to enlisted men. Officers were expected to expose themselves to as much danger as the men and routinely did; and just as routinely died. The concept of honour was a very important issue to them and they really did put “king and country” ahead of their own personal interests. Consider the dying of words of General Wolfe:

"See how they run." one of the officers exclaimed, as the French fled in confusion before the leveled bayonets.

"Who run?" demanded Wolfe, opening his eyes like a man aroused from sleep.

"The enemy, sir," was the reply; "they give way everywhere."

"Then," said the dying general, "tell Colonel River, to cut off their retreat from the bridge. Now, God be praised, I die contented," he murmured; and, turning on his side, he calmly breathed his last breath.

Modern warfare isn't as cut and dried as in the time of black powder muskets, but it still requires a level of sustained courage that goes beyond normal experience. It takes a lot of “guts” to ride around in a LAV, never knowing if the road beneath your feet will explode. Similarly, it is enormously trying to engage with a populace never knowing if someone in the crowd is wearing a vest made of TNT. In its own way, going out on patrol in Afganhistan is just as nerve-wracking as standing in a “thin red line” while waiting for the the officer to tell you to fire at the approaching French columns while the artillery and skirmishers kill men all around you. In both cases study after study has shown that the reason why men will endure this sort of suffering is not because of patriotism or some other reason, but instead one of “not letting the other guys down”, which, in essense, is what “esprite d'ecorps” or the “honour of the regiment” usually boils down to.

Modern armies have created a culture that goes to enormous lengths to create this sense of honour. In fact, it is a key element of the basic training experience---along with teaching the soldiers certain skills, how to take orders and raising their level of physical fitness. Going over obstacle courses, being yelled at by sargeants, bashing squares, and spit-and-polish rituals, are only of very minimal value in actual battle. Why they have been retained by all the militaries of the world is because they inculcate an emotional reprioritization where soldiers put the good of their regiment ahead of their own personal safety. And it is that reprioritization that allows officers to give suicidially dangerous orders to their men with the confident expectation that they will in fact be be carried out. This is the ultimate authority in military discipline, and discipline is the mother of victory. In effect, military power ultimately comes from how deeply our soldiers honour and love their regiment.

Just as the Benedictines were a social institution that developed faith and love of God as a mechanism to overcome people's inherent inability to live together communally, so the armed forces are able to use honour to similarly overcome the terror of battle.