Wednesday, March 31, 2010

WTF!?! Parents...

I stopped in to the coffee shop for a cup before my psych test this afternoon, figuring I would have one of my cigarettes for the day while I do some homework. My regular coffee shop is the only coffee shop in town that still allows smoking - though that is soon to end as MI has joined the 21st century in banning smoking in public establishments.

Now as a rule, I don't mind kids in coffee shops - as long as they are reasonably well behaved. My eldest is actually very fond of going to coffee shops with papa, because it is an adult thing to do. But I have more than mild objections to children in a coffee shop that allows smoking. It pisses me off - a lot. Kids simply do not belong in places that are full of this sort of lung pollution.

So I am more than a little irritated to find two children sitting at a table next to their mother's table - where there has consistently been at least one person smoking. This in addition to the other patrons surrounding these boys with more smoke. To make this that much more obnoxious, there is a whole upstairs that is smoke free.

Good times...

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two Subjectives do not = Objective Truth

That damned Greg Laden just had to post this video, in which Sam Harris makes the absurd claim that science can speak to objective moral truth (followed up here). It hurts me head. It also makes me very, very cranky.

Before I go on, I do think it is important for me to define my biases. My biases are not something that influenced my position on this issue of universal moral truths. I spent the vast majority of my 34 years, struggling with my religious beliefs. I think that the shedding of my faith can ultimately be summed up rather simply and in a fashion that is very relevant to the discussion at hand - I just thought of this as I was sitting here typing. The last vestiges of faith were decimated, the moment I realized that there is no objective moral truth. This is not to say that my lack of faith is contingent on a lack of moral truth. Rather, that is what put me over the edge - finally.

But my biases - we were exploring my biases. While my relationship with religious dogma was peculiar in later years, it was dogma just the same. There was some kind of external force that lent authority to my moral frame - even though my moral frame was very much my own. I am done with that bullshit. My morality is my governor of my actions. I do what I believe is right because I believe it is the right thing to do, not because some god tells me to and not because there is some universal compelling force.

There are some rather serious flaws in Dr. Harris' arguments. The first seems to be what may well make this a semantic argument first and fore. It is hard to say, because unlike what I was led to believe is one of the most important aspects of using science as a tool for exploring the world, Harris doesn't seem to actually define the most important term in this discussion - "morality." It just seems to be assumed that we know what this means in Sam's head and what difference we miss will be picked up in context. Not wanting to make that mistake myself, I am going to define morality as I understand and accept it;

Morality is every individual's framework for deciding the "right" and "wrong" ways of interacting with people and the world around them. The only universal moral truth, is that excepting pathological sociopaths, everyone has a moral frame which is relative to time, space, culture and the individual. The context of time is both the macrocosm of human and protohuman history and the microcosm of the individuals own life. Moral frames are not static, rather they change as an individual grows and changes.

Sam Harris, on the other hand, seems to be defining morality as values and objective facts that influence our wellbeing. The first fatal flaw here, is that Harris is taking one subjective measure, to use as the metric for defining a subjective abstraction. This is not something I am certain of, because as I mentioned he doesn't actually define the most important term. Neither does he really define what, if we are going to be using it as the metric, becomes the second most important term - "wellbeing."

Having defined morality and then referred to it as an abstraction, I want to clarify that referring to it as an abstraction was not to detract from it's importance. Many abstractions are important, morality being among the most important. But as an abstraction, it is important to realize that by definition it can only ever be relative. Nor is there anything wrong with that - nothing dangerous or evil about it. We have laws to govern society. And most of our moral frames are largely derived from our cultural context, so while we all have our differences, there are enough similarities for us to get along. When the getting along based on moral and ethical choices fails, we also have laws and external enforcement mechanisms to back them up - flawed as those mechanisms might be.

I really need to get to bed - I have a lot of work to do tomorrow, not the least being getting to class on time in the morning. I do want to leave this with some examples of moral minutia. Thankfully, I posted them earlier, when I should have been writing my papers. But fuck it, I can probably work this into one of them.
People like to bring up things like murder, rape or care of children to make these universal claims - but it falls apart. Murder is the worst - what exactly is murder? Does this mean that any taking of human life is immoral? If not, who's line between rightful and wrongful death is the universal moral truth? But what about rape then? If there is a universal moral truth about rape, then first off, we need to absolutely define rape - something that right or wrong, a lot of people define in a lot of different ways. And even if we could agree, do we then make the claim that every culture that has looked at rape as a amoral act at worse was totally without moral compass? That they simply didn't have any moral frame? And when it comes to kids, our western ideals are born of a very different culture. That is not to say that people in developing countries don't love their children - they most certainly do. But they also have a very different attitude about losing children - their infant mortality rates require it. There have been and as far as I know still are cultures that practice infanticide to prevent a child that will starve otherwise, from going through that suffering and to make sure there is that little bit more for those who are more likely to.

We won't even go into China and the impact of their one child laws.

Fuck these claims of universal moral truths. The ideal is patently absurd and the desire to find such truths is little different than the drive to Believe in something greater than oneself.

We can try to play semantic games that make morality something else. We can call it an ideal or some such bullshit. We can make it into an abstraction of an abstraction if we want to play the games with morality that religious people play. But in so doing, we would render the entire concept of morality completely damned useless in any practical sense. Or we can accept that moral relativity isn't the end of the world. That moral relativity doesn't = an excuse for hedonism and the worst excesses of debauchery.

Look at it this way; Atheists have been around for a very long time. Atheists who are out and proud have been around for a little while now. And without some dogmatic universal moral frame, we have managed to avoid murdering people, eating babies and stealing each others significant others (though some might borrow in the context of an understanding mind - I don't think that is immoral at all - even though I don't do that myself)...We're still here and generally behaving like reasonable and even responsible people.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some sadness at the loss of future history...

It makes me sad sometimes to know that I will never see what we are to become, should we survive a thousand years - a hundred thousand years - a million.

Will we persevere? Will we thrive? Will we ever throw off the shackles of physics that hold us to our spherical space ship, orbiting our sun?

What will we look like? What will we achieve?

At least we have imaginations to provide us with so many possibilities, even if those possibilities should pale against the reality of our future history. We can look anywhere and everywhere we please, limited only by the vast and remarkable vistas our neurons can produce.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Neurobiology, Language and Culture: Help DuWayne Again

I am moving right along with my exploration of cognitive function, language and culture. I am really enjoying my quest into human consciousness, social development and their intersect with language. Honestly, I spend a lot of time wavering between reading (and listening to audiobooks) about human cognition, evolution, language and culture - and sitting in a daze, trying to pick apart tendrils of thoughts and ideas. It often reminds me very much of being really stoned, without the accompanying debilitation. Indeed, due to the stimulant therapy and the Welbutrin, I am actually able to pick at the minutiae and consider it in and out of context - assessing the implications.

Given another year or so, I should be able to develop a reasonable hypothesis. That is, a hypothesis that will drive the research I conduct early in my career. I have developed some interesting questions that I really hope will lead me to that question that will take up much of my time in a few years. That is the investigation into the questions, not the answers. While it is theoretically possible to answer these questions, doing so would be exceedingly difficult - if not impossible, given the tools we have to work with right now. And that assumes the questions themselves are correct.

One of the big questions - or series of questions I am rather keen on right now, is the correlation between language and culture, language and cognition and culture and cognition. I have been spending much of my spare time, such as it is, exploring the co-evolution of language and the brain. I have also read some interesting stuff about the early evolution of culture. And studying psychology and linguistics, I note correlations of culture, psychology, psychopathology and language on a regular basis. The exact nature of these correlations are the most fascinating questions I have ever had. There are not many questions I have found more pleasure in exploring.

At the moment I am exploring the evolution of language and the evolution of culture for one of my papers. I am also working on a paper that explores the impact of language and culture on the expression and treatment of mood disorders.

So here is the help that I need. I have most of the source material I need, but at least one of my sources for both papers needs to be an interaction with another person. Because of the nature of what I am writing about, I am really hoping to find some folks who have some background in some aspect or another, of the topics I am writing about. I am especially interested in talking to someone with experience in cross cultural mental health services. I do actually have some people I could potentially harass for the first paper (though I would love to meet new people), I am mostly looking for someone to talk to about the second.

When I am done with my papers and they have been graded, I will go ahead and post them. I have one that I should be able to post sometime this next week. These two papers however, aren't due for another four weeks, so I doubt I am going to be able to post them for at least that long.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Back Aches, Scents and those Damned Kids on my Lawn Again

As the youngest of eight or nine - maybe ten of us, I have a plethora of older siblings whom I have mocked over the years as they have succumbed to various joint and muscle ailments. Horrifically, excepting a sister who inherited rheumatoid arthritis, I am pretty sure that I am starting down the path of general aches and pains younger than any of my other siblings. My brother Kevin doesn't really count, because his knees were trashed through trauma while playing football.

Over the weekend I was helping one of my sibs install some plumbing in a rental he is remodeling for his landlord. Nothing strenuous or the least bit difficult, I found that I could barely walk after several hours of sitting on the floor, putting the waterlines in place and getting the drainline together. I have been having problems with the left lower back for some time - rather serious pain when I stand up that settles back nicely when I walk it off for a few seconds. But this is something new - excruciating pain that just wouldn't go away.

Concerned, I went in to see my doctor on Monday (nothing says fun like dropping fifty bucks I really can't afford) who is fairly certain that it is just a type of muscle spasm that should clear up in a few weeks. Oh, and I can expect this sort of thing to occur with some regularity, which is why he put a refill on the script for Flexerall. That way I have some for the next time this problem arises.

I also finally broke down and accepted a script for the damned migraines...

While we are on the issue of getting older, I would like to implore people I might come in contact with in public to please use a shower or bath to deal with general body odor, rather than dousing yourself in perfume or cologne. Seriously, this is just fucking gross. I have absolutely nothing against wearing scent, but that should be something you share with your partner or others you invite into your personal bubble - we should not smell it more than a foot or so away from you.

In all honesty, I would much rather smell your sweat than take in the general ambiance of a French whorehouse. When you inflict your choice of scent on others, it is just as rude as walking up to people and farting in their faces.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Billions of Years in the Making

Having been rather depressed and stressed out lately, it is odd that I would actually be rather pleased to have woken up around four this morning and only dozed hear and there after. But I was stuck on a line of thought that rarely fails to excite and invigorate me - possibly why I managed little sleep. It is a thought that is so much more exciting to me than any of the religious and spiritual ideologies I explored over the years. It started small, in context to the relative scale of the whole - starting just before the dawn of modern man and moving backwards. Started in the context of what I am studying now and moving back to the beginning - or at least "a" beginning and then sling-shooting from there into the distant future.

Just considering the context of our human race, we are many, many thousands of years in the making - each and every one of us. We fought, we died - but some few of us lived, at some points the underdog of two legged mammals - our contemporaries often times far better adapted to the environment of a given time. They were too well adapted though and while many of our ancestors died in those harsh environments, when the environment changed again they were the one's left standing. We were the one's left standing, because through the eons, the genes of those ancestors are a part of who we are - right now - today.

I could move forward, but I think that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with what happened next. Through near extinction, to near extinction we evolved until we hit on a lush environment where we thrived and continued to adapt. Eventually we became very much like we are today. Having developed rudimentary language and culture, our brains became something very similar to the brains we have today - though there was considerable development as language evolved and culture evolved.

At some point I would love to write in considerably more detail about the terrible and wondrous story of human evolution, but for now we are going to go in the other direction - quite a distance through time and space, in the other direction. Because our story doesn't start there, where and when we stood up on two legs and walked. It doesn't start hundreds of millions of years earlier, when single celled organisms started to divide and evolve in that lush (for such organisms) primordial environment. It doesn't even start a few billion years before that, when this celestial body we call home was born of gravity and fire. These are mere historical footnotes in the chain of events that brought us to this time and place, where I am sitting here typing on an amazing device that totally blows those nifty digital watches out of the water.

Right now, I want to take us back further, because we are so very much older than less than a hand-count's billions of years. And it may well be that the molecules that make up our being are even older than the beginning at most of us consider it. But there is no question whatever, that every proton, neutron and electron that forms every atom that forms every molecule that forms every cell that forms us, has traveled billions of light years and billions of years to be here, today, making up every one of us. And because of the basic principle of matter, that matter can neither be created or destroyed, every bit of who we are is going to journey on, for billions of years and more when our neuropathways shut down and our last thoughts fade.

Whether the universe faces infinite expansion, or it will slowly draw in on itself until every bit of each of us, along with all other matter in the universe coalesces into an unbelievably dense bit of matter, reached critical mass and explodes - we will be there, every physical fragment that makes up our bodies, continuing on a grand adventure. Personally, I hope that the universe coalesces and explodes into a new universe. I love to think the fragments of everything and everybody that has existed or will exist in this vast, mindbogglingly huge universe will all be smashed together into a tiny ball of matter so dense that it's gravity is powerful enough to draw in and crush into itself, every bit of matter that exists in this universe.

The scale and scope the true story of human life and every other life in this universe, is enough to make a person weep at the inconceivable beauty of it. These remarkable minds we possess - minds that conceived of digital watches and computers the size of a trade paperback and so much more - they balk at even trying to comprehend the scale of our story - the story of everything around us. When you think about it, we, in this tiny fraction of time, on our tiny planet in a backwater galaxy - interstellar bumpkins really, we are truly remarkable creatures. Our existence - how we came into being, is at truly incredible story.

Not magically poofed into existence, not the result of some superbeing mucking about with our evolution - not even the result of some universal intelligence trying to experience physical substance...We, with our digital watches, computers, painfully slow space craft and sometimes wholly remarkable superstructures are the result of a far more amazing series of events. Following what the best evidence, best understanding we have of the universe around us, a story that defies imagination unfolds - so much greater than any magical explanation could ever be.

We truly are made of star stuff, the residue of an immeasurable (at least at the moment) explosion.* We, and every other sapient creature - every other life form - the placement of every bit of matter everywhere is there by chance. We just happened - through explosions and and a nearly infinite number of other chemical reactions. And here we are - quite likely others are as well, on other planets - in other galaxies and if certain theories of physicists hold out, in other universes as well.

If it is possible to consider this story, the story of us, without tears forming in your eyes, I would like to know how.**

*(bastardized in part, from a quote by Carl Sagan, Cosmos)
**(especially as I am finishing this up in the cafeteria at school)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Animal Rights Loons

Apparently the AR loons are at it again - and here is me, not paying any attention to blogs and totally missing out on the lunacy. Probably for the best, as I really don't have time right now - but I wish I did. I spent way too much time delving into the depths of postmodern extremism, in my investigation of AR insanity, not to address this in considerable more detail. Not merely from the perspective of decrying terrorist and terrorism supporting asshats, but from a cultural/socialpsych perspective.

Lumping the lot of postmodern extremists together, you actually have all the trappings of religion, sans supernatural. This is not to say that some postmodern extremists don't engage in spiritualism or even outright organized religion, it is just somewhat rare and not central to their dogmatic presuppositions.

I am not even going to try to link the scibloggers - most of the people who read my blog have probably read more of these posts than I have. I have only glanced through a couple and spent more time at it than I can afford at that. I do have spring break coming up and might come up with some time to go into this more then, but I also have several papers to write and was hoping to play catch-up/maybe get ahead of my eighteen credit semester load and devote some time to my partner...

Suffice to say they are out there and our old friends at NIO are feeling rather butthurt from the Pharyngulite and other sciblogger hoards...

I should also note that I am extremely grateful to scientists who spend their time trying to improve my life and the lives of others - especially in the face of threats from terrorists and other AR nuts.

OpenOffice users, HELP!!!

I am a huge OO fan - I have been using it for years now and have had very few problems with it...None at all really, if the comparison is Microsoft's crappy office suite - something that is completely incomprehensible to me.

The only problems that I have ever had are always related to auto-correct/auto-formatting. I have previously been able to get the shit I don't want it to do turned off - unfortunately this is no longer the case. Though honestly, I am not sure what is stuck on beyond the very worst bane of my existence.

I absolutely, without question and from the very depths of my being hate auto-numbering/table creation. I hate it when this interferes with taking notes in class. While my notes may come out looking something like an outline, they are not and do not need to be numbered. When I am editing a pre-numbered study guide, I do not want it to insert numbers every time I hit return. And honestly, when I am making an outline, I want my headings and subheadings to define my outline - not numbers or bullet points.

Personally, as little use as I ever have for numbering and/or bullet points, I am more than happy to insert that shit manually.

Previously I have been able to turn off the numbering by checking off the "Apply numbering - symbol" box under tools - auto-correct - options. When I have wanted to turn off all auto-correction, checking off the formatting - auto-correct - while typing box. I have done both of these things and that fucking "bullets and numbering" box is still showing up when I hit return, trying to edit my psych midterm study guide.

Don't get me wrong, I really do love OO and will continue to be a faithful user. At least when problems come up with OO, people actually fix them...And when something seems rather non-functional, even if for certain applications - someone either fixes it, or creates a patch...

I am just not feeling the love so much right now, having become increasingly tempted to chuck my laptop out a window...