This week’s recommended readings include an essay in defense of the philosophy of science; thoughts and insights on channeling, creativity, savants, and the farther reaches of human potential; a recounting of Bobby Kennedy’s defense of LSD research during the heady 1960s; essays about the influence of neuroscience on novelists and the deep value of the humanities; a report on Iceland’s economic recovery as contrasted with Europe’s woes; articles and essays on the reality of climate change and the upsurge of depression in a heavily medicated America; results of a new study into the anxiety effects of Facebook and Twitter; information on new and disturbing trends in America’s surveillance of citizens via cell phones and soon-to-come, science fiction-style scanners; and a trailer for a haunting documentary film.
[NOTE: Michael Ruse is Lucyle T Werkmeister professor of philosophy and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University. He’s responding here to a recent (April) and instantly notorious Atlantic interview with physicist Lawrence Krauss titled “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” (which I, like half of the rest of America read several weeks ago; I’ve been meaning to link to it here ever since, and now I’ve succeeded). One would think the interview’s title is simple sensationalism. And would be wrong, as Krauss makes abundantly clear with his thoroughly scornful and dismissive words about philosophy and religion, coupled with an exaltation of physics as, basically, the only way to know. It’s a position condensed from his new book A Universe from Nothing, and it’s well worth reading. And so, pointedly, is Ruse’s riposte.]
“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” This is the reported judgement, by the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, on my lifelong profession. It is a sentiment shared by other scientists, most recently the physicist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss. Taking extreme umbrage at a severely critical review of his most recent book by a philosopher of physics at Columbia University, he described his tormentor as “moronic” and lit into the whole area from which the negative judgement had come. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical…[P]eople in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”… I don’t really care if scientists care for or use my work or not. Except, and I say this perhaps cynically but without sarcasm or exaggeration, that in this age of much-reduced university budgets we in the humanities need as many friends as we can find across campus, especially in the more favoured areas of science. The point is that I am a philosopher, I am proud to be a philosopher, and I defend to the death the intrinsic worth of what I am doing. If looking critically (I don’t mean negatively) at one of the most important forces in our society — science — is not of worth, then I do not know what is. If the pig thinks he is one up on Socrates, then that is the pig’s problem, because he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.
[R]ecords of trance communications attest to individual human minds being influenced in their thoughts and decisions by other intelligences in the ascended realm, leading us to contemplate our perceptions and understanding of our individual identities. The diverse psychic phenomena chronicled in numerous books suggest human beings have a shared ‘subconscious’ mind and this all-knowing Source of human creativity is the reason one will be able to find curious ‘co-incidences’ and synchronicities related even to commercial art forms such as movies and television shows.
Savant is derived from a French word meaning “learned one.” Although they are often mentally or socially impaired, savants frequently possess astonishing creative and intuitive powers of obscure origin, in areas such as mathematics, art, or music. [Joseph Chilton] Pearce probes the mysteries of savant syndrome in his book Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence. He states, “Savants are untrained and untrainable, illiterate and uneducable…few can read or write…Yet each has apparently unlimited access to a particular field of knowledge that we know they cannot have acquired…Ask…[mathematical] savants how they get their answer and they will smile, pleased that we are impressed but unable to grasp the implications of such a question…The answers come through them but they are not aware of how — they don’t know how they know…The ones sight-reading music can’t read anything else, yet display this flawless sensory-motor response to musical symbols…” And here is the crux of the mystery: “The issue with these savants is that in most cases, so far as can be observed, the savant has not acquired, could not have acquired, and is quite incapable of acquiring, the information that he so liberally dispenses…Savants are harbingers of human possibilities. They show us, I suggest, that it is possible to access transpersonal aspects of consciousness that are currently denied in conventional science. Their deep mental acuity, though limited in bandwidth, points toward the possibility of omniscience, for that is what an unlimited, collective pool of information accessible to humans implies.
In the spring of 1966, the conservative Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-CT), an alcoholic who was later censured by the Senate for political corruption, convened The Special Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency for three hearings on LSD and other psychedelic drugs. Around the same time, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) convened the Subcommittee on the Executive Reorganization of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, in the face of an FDA and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) anti-psychedelic hit job. He defended LSD against the rampant hysteria that it would either drive all users crazy or trigger a mass drop out from society…[He said] “I think we have given too much emphasis and so much attention to the fact that it can be dangerous and that it can hurt an individual who uses it…that perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.” Kennedy was also concerned with “FDA interference with the scientific investigation of so promising a drug as LSD,” but his sensible and objective pleas fell on the deaf ears of the political and medical establishment. We all know how the rest of the story played out: LSD was labeled a controlled substance and the sale and use of the drug, and all psychedelics, moved to the black market and far away from any legitimate research.
[NOTE: The noting and analysis here of a significant trend among contemporary novelists is almost insanely insightful.]
The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel — the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind — has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain…There are also many recent genre novels, mostly thrillers, of amnesia, bipolar disorder, and multiple personality disorder. As young writers in Balzac walk around Paris pitching historical novels with titles like The Archer of Charles IX, in imitation of Walter Scott, today an aspiring novelist might seek his subject matter in a neglected corner or along some new frontier of neurology…The question, then, is why novelists have ceded their ground to science. And from the writer’s perspective, if not from the reader’s, an allegorical interpretation of the neuronovel does seem possible. Is the interest in neurological anomaly not symptomatic of an anxiety about the role of novelists in this new medical-materialist world, which happens also to be a world of giant publishing conglomerates and falling reading rates? Are novelists now, in their own eyes and others’, only special cases, without specialized and credentialed knowledge, who may at best dispense accurate if secondhand medical (or historical or sociological) information in the form of an entertaining fictional narrative?…It now seems we’ve gone beyond the loss of society and religion to the loss of the self, an object whose intricacies can only be described by future science. It’s not, of course, that morality, society, and selfhood no longer exist, but they are now the property of specialists writing in the idioms of their disciplines. So the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview.
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Reading Each Other
Sarah Skwire, The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, Volume 62, Issue 6 (July/August 2012)
The humanities — perhaps literature in particular, but art and music and philosophy and film, all the humanities — give us a way to practice sympathy. We look at the agony of a tormented saint in an El Greco painting. We listen to the manic patriotism of Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony, written at the height of Stalin’s rule. We puzzle through Socrates’s debate about whether to drink hemlock. We think about the way they make us feel, and the way their creators must have felt, and we work to understand the people, events, and emotions they portray. And because the works are great and beautiful and endlessly compelling, we come back to them again and again to think some more, and to find new ways to understand them…Like almost anything worth learning, sympathy is hard, and learning it is a lifelong enterprise. The reason to devote time and energy to developing it in ourselves and our children, to practicing the fellow-feeling that [Adam] Smith praises, is not simply to learn to cry when someone else stubs his toe. The point is to use this skill to think more intelligently about how we can understand each other and to capitalize on that understanding to create the kind of world we want for ourselves and our families…The humanities can teach us civility and sympathy, but they can’t make us perfect and they can’t fix our problems for us. They can help us be more aware of the “unseen,” but they cannot help us predict unintended consequences. There isn’t a philosophical theory or a novel or a painting or a piece of music in the world that can solve the Middle East or clean up an oil spill or make the economy recover. The best the humanities can do is to remind us that, as Auden put it, “We must love one another or die,” and then show us how to do it.
[NOTE: Read this one with an eye to the contrasts between Iceland’s and Europe’s (and also the United States’) respective handlings of, and policy decisions regarding, their banks, small businesses, and private citizens amid Armageddon-like financial and economic conditions. There’s a lesson here that assumes the authentic status of an ancient, hoary fable. That said, beware the fact that this and other current reports about Iceland’s “recovery” are being told securely within the overarching narrative of the standard economic growth paradigm, which, as we know, is seriously in question — and seriously, intrinsically questionable — as a viable worldview.]
For a country that four years ago plunged into a financial abyss so deep it all but shut down overnight, Iceland seems to be doing surprisingly well. It has repaid, early, many of the international loans that kept it afloat. Unemployment is hovering around 6 percent, and falling. And while much of Europe is struggling to pull itself out of the recessionary swamp, Iceland’s economy is expected to grow by 2.8 percent this year. “Everything has turned around,” said Adalheidur Hedinsdottir, who owns and runs the coffee chain Kaffitar, the Starbucks of Iceland, and has plans to open a new cafe and start a bakery business. “When we told the bank we wanted to make a new company, they said, ‘Do you want to borrow money?’ ” she went on. “We haven’t been hearing that for a while.” Analysts attribute the surprising turn of events to a combination of fortuitous decisions and good luck, and caution that the lessons of Iceland’s turnaround are not readily applicable to the larger and more complex economies of Europe. But during the crisis, the country did many things different from its European counterparts. It let its three largest banks fail, instead of bailing them out. It ensured that domestic depositors got their money back and gave debt relief to struggling homeowners and to businesses facing bankruptcy. “Taking down a company with positive cash flow but negative equity would in the given circumstances have a domino effect, causing otherwise sound companies to collapse,” said Thorolfur Matthiasson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland. “Forgiving debt under those circumstances can be profitable for the financial institutions and help the economy and reduce unemployment as well.”
Severe droughts, floods and heat waves rocked the world last year as greenhouse gas levels climbed, boosting the odds of some extreme weather events, international scientists said Tuesday. The details are contained in the annual State of the Climate report, compiled by nearly 400 scientists from 48 countries and published in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The report itself remains “consciously conservative” when it comes to attributing the causes of certain weather events to climate change, and instead refers only to widely understood phenomena such as La Nina. However, it is accompanied for the first time by a separate analysis that explains how climate change may have influenced certain key events, from droughts in the US and Africa to extreme cold and warm spells in Britain…An accompanying analysis in the same journal, titled “Explaining Extreme Events,” examined the links between human-driven climate change and six selected weather crises in 2011, including the Texas drought that lasted half the year. The authors found that “such a heat wave is now around 20 times more likely during a La Nina year than it was during the 1960s,” said Peter Stott, climate monitoring and attribution team leader at the UK Met Office…While it remains hard to link single events to human-caused climate change, “scientific thinking has moved on and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements about individual weather or climate events are possible,” the report added.
[NOTE: Although there’s a byline above, it bears calling out for extra emphasis, in case you missed it: This piece is by Andrew Weil. He has been making the media rounds in recent months to talk about the issue broached by this article. A very necessary task these days, and he’s an excellent guy to be fulfilling it.]
Teaser: More of us than ever are discontented and not experiencing optimum emotional well-being. Why is the vast enterprise of professional mental health unable to help us feel better?
An alternative to the old talking cure is expanding the knowledge base of psychotherapy as we recognize the role that exercise, nutrition, spirituality, mind-body approaches, and lifestyle can play in enhancing our clinical effectiveness. Epidemic depression is occurring at a time when the field of mental health appears very robust. There are more mental health professionals treating more people than ever before in history: psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, licensed social workers, counselors, and therapists of all kinds. We have a powerful “therapeutic arsenal” of drugs to make us happier, calmer, and saner. When I leaf through the pharmaceutical ads that take up so much space in psychiatric journals, I get the feeling that we should all be in great emotional health. Depression and anxiety should be as fully conquered as smallpox and polio. But more of us than ever are discontented and not experiencing optimum emotional well-being. What is wrong with this picture? Why is the vast enterprise of professional mental health unable to help us feel better? I want you to consider the possibility that the basic assumptions of mainstream psychiatric medicine are obsolete and no longer serve us well. Those assumptions constitute the biomedical model of mental health and dominate the whole field.
Teaser: Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter feed anxiety and make people feel inadequate, a study has found.
A poll of those using the technology found more than half of those surveyed said the sites had changed their behaviour – and half of those said their lives had been altered for the worse. Most commonly, those who suffered a negative impact from social media said their confidence fell after comparing their own achievements to those of friends online. Two-thirds said they found it hard to relax completely or to sleep after spending time on the sites. And one quarter of those polled said they had been left facing difficulties in their relationships or workplace after becoming confrontational online… The research also demonstrated the addictive powers of internet, with 55 per cent of people saying they felt “worried or uncomfortable” when they could not access their Facebook or email accounts…Last year, a global study found that turning off mobile phones, avoiding the internet and tuning out of the television and radio can leave people suffering from symptoms similar to those seen in drug addicts trying to go “cold turkey”. Scientists asked volunteers from 12 universities around the world to stay away from computers, mobile phones, iPods, television and radio for 24 hours. They found that the participants began to develop symptoms typically seen in smokers attempting to give up. The majority of those who enrolled in the study failed to last the full 24 hours without demanding their gadgets back.
Local, state and federal law enforcement authorities made more than 1.3 million demands for cellphone subscriber information last year, in a sign of their growing reliance on technology to aid criminal and emergency investigations. The reports from carriers came in response to a congressional inquiry seeking to document the surge in surveillance involving data from mobile devices as more and more Americans carry cellphones to talk, text and send messages…The data turned over include geo-location information, based on cell tower and Global Positioning System coordinates; calls made and received; text message content; and wiretap information, said [Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus].
Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body — agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you. And without you knowing it…According to the undersecretary for science and technology of the Department of Homeland Security, this scanning technology will be ready within one to two years, which means you might start seeing them in airports as soon as 2013. In other words, these portable, incredibly precise molecular-level scanning devices will be cascading lasers across your body as you walk from the bathroom to the soda machine at the airport and instantly reporting and storing a detailed breakdown of your person, in search of certain “molecular tags”. Going well beyond eavesdropping, it seems quite possible that U.S. government plans on recording molecular data on travelers without their consent, or even knowledge that it’s possible.
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[NOTE: Mesmerizing. Shocking. Disturbing. Saddening. Exquisitely beautiful. All at once.]
Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD; GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES; and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.
The Teeming Brain explores news, trends, and developments in religion, horror, science fiction, fantasy, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in science, technology, politics, ecology, economics, the media, the arts, education, and society at large. Its founder and primary author is Matt Cardin.
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"[Dark Awakenings is] a thinking-man's book of the macabre...Cardin's tales are rich with references to Lovecraft, Nietzsche, and other writers whose work gives them unusual philosophic depth." – Publishers Weekly
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FOR RICHARD GAVIN:
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